The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

VII

Halo sat alone among the ruins. It was one of the moments when life seems to turn and mock one’s magnanimity. When she had torn up her lawyer’s letter, and cast in her lot with Vance’s, she fancied she was tearing up all the petty restrictions of her past. In her new existence the meaner prejudices would no longer reach her. All the qualities in her which could serve the man she loved — her greater experience, her knowledge of the world, her familiarity with Vance’s character, her faith in his genius — seemed to justify her decision. It was to be her privilege to give him what he had always lacked: intellectual companionship and spiritual sympathy. And now, for a whim, for nothing, she had risked her hard-won happiness and dropped to the level of any nagging woman — all because he had unwittingly offended the very prejudices from which she imagined he had delivered her!

The worst of it was that she was no untaught girl among the first pitfalls of passion. Psyche turning her lamp on the secret face of love was a novice; Halo Tarrant knew the ways of men, yet at the first occasion she had repeated Psyche’s blunder. She had found out now how little importance Vance attached to the idea of marriage — and she had shown him the social value it had for her. Everything that she had meant to leave undefined and fluid in their relation her own act had forced him to define and crystallize, and thereby she had turned the lamp on her own face. Yet she could not help feeling as she had felt. Her relations with the men she had grown up among had been regulated by a code of which Vance did not know the first word, and she now saw how such tacit observances may be inwoven with the closest human intimacies.

“Laura Lou couldn’t understand a word of what he wrote or thought; but in my place she would have known at once that in discussing her situation with a stranger he was only proving his admiration for her.” And she recalled a whimsical axiom of George Frenside’s: “No passion can survive a woman’s seeing her lover hold his fork in the wrong way.”

The absurdity of it shook her out of her depression. Yes, a real passion could; she meant to prove it! She would show Vance that she understood his heart as well as his brain. She would propose to him to have Alders to dine that very evening, she would even suggest Vance’s going off on a trip with his new friend if he wanted to. She would prove to him that her only happiness was in knowing that he was happy. Already she marvelled that anything else had seemed of the least moment. . .

The hours went by, and she sat alone in the dreary pension room. Rain-clouds hung low on the Sierra; summer seemed to have passed with the passing of her unclouded hours. She recalled Vance’s impulsiveness, his moody fits. What if he had taken the train and gone off, heaven knew where, away from her tears and her reproaches? He would come back, of course; in her heart she was sure of him; but meanwhile what irreparable thoughts might he not be thinking?

She went down alone to lunch; then she rambled out aimlessly, hoping to run across him in some corner of the Alhambra hill. But a bleak wind blew over the ramparts, shaking the leaves from the elms, and she returned, chilled and discouraged, without having found him. She thought to herself: “I ought to have gone with him when he went out. I ought not to have let him carry away that distorted image of me . . . I ought to have done something, said something, that would have blotted it out before his eyes had grown used to it . . . And I stood there, and couldn’t think of anything!”

She recalled her differences with Lewis Tarrant, the low-pitched quiet conflicts from which she always emerged more worn than after a noisy quarrel. No doubt Vance was feeling at this moment as she used to feel after those arid arguments. He would never say of her again that she was like the air he breathed! She sat down and rested her tired head on her arms.

She was still sitting there when the door opened and he came in. At the turn of the door-handle she knew he was there, and sprang up. “Vance —!” She stood looking at him, filling her eyes with his face as if he had come back from the dead.

He gave a shy laugh, and one hand fumbled in his pocket. “You liked this the other day — .” He pulled out a little packet. “Here.” He pushed it into her hand. She was touched by the boyishness of the gesture; but instantly she thought: “He used to make up his quarrels with Laura Lou by bringing her presents . . .” and his impulse seemed to lose its spontaneity.

“But, Vance, I didn’t want a present — .” Seeing his look of disappointment she regretted the words. “Oh, but this is lovely,” she hurried on, slipping through her fingers an old peasant necklace of garnets and enamelled gold. She remembered having admired it one day in an antiquary’s shop. “I didn’t even know you knew I’d seen it,” she said, her voice shaken by the returning rush of happiness.

“I didn’t. Alders told me; he notices those things more than I do,” said Vance with simplicity.

Halo’s heart dropped. She looked at the necklace with disenchanted eyes. Then she thought: “If he tells me the truth it’s because he still loves me, and doesn’t feel that he has to pretend”; and she slipped the trinket about her neck. Vance looked at her earnestly. “You really like it?”

“I love it — but you’ve been very extravagant, haven’t you?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Call it a wedding present.”

Halo echoed the laugh. “A wedding present? Oh, please not, darling; because I want to wear it at once!”

“Well, you won’t have to wait long, will you? Can’t we get married pretty soon now?” Vance looked at her shyly, as though making the offer to a young girl he secretly worshipped, but was afraid of frightening by a too impulsive word.

Halo saw that he was trying to reassure her, to convince her of his love; he had trembled for their future as she had. For a moment she found no words; then they came, quick and passionate. “No, no! Don’t let’s talk of that now. It won’t be soon, at any rate; my divorce, I mean; probably not for a long time — I don’t care if I never get it. Nothing can be as perfect as this. If there’s any way of being happier, I don’t want to know it — it would frighten me! In heaven there’s no marrying or giving in marriage. Let’s stay in heaven as long as we can.” She went up to him and found the safety of his arms.

Their second honeymoon had the factitious fervour which marks such reconstructions. Halo had grown afraid to take her happiness for granted, and afraid lest Vance should detect her fears. The simplest words they exchanged seemed to connote a background of artifice. There were times when the effort to be careless and buoyant made her feel old and wary; others when the perfection of the present filled her with a new dread of the future. There was hardly an hour when she could yield without afterthought to the natural joy she had known during her first weeks with her lover.

She had hesitated for a long time before answering the letter her lawyer had sent to the steamer; now she wrote briefly, thanking him for his advice, but saying that the affair must take its course. For her part she would not attempt to interfere. She was travelling abroad with Vance Weston, as her husband could easily assure himself, and he was at liberty to divorce her if he preferred a scandal, and was unwilling to let her have her liberty without it. To her mother, from whom she had received several letters full of distressful entreaties, she wrote in the same strain. “Dearest, dearest, do try to understand me, and be patient with me if you can’t. I love Vance, I believe in his genius, I went to him because he was lonely and unhappy and needed me, and I mean to stay with him as long as he wants me. If Lewis won’t let me have my divorce on the terms we had agreed on he can easily get all the evidence he needs and take proceedings against me. But if he would rather forego his freedom than give me mine, even on those conditions, his decision can make no difference to me, for I shall be proud to live with Vance as his mistress. Nothing that Lewis does can really hurt me, and it seems a pity he should sacrifice his own happiness when he is so powerless to interfere with mine.”

The words, as she re-read them, sounded rather theatrical, and she would have preferred to avoid such a declaration of independence; but it had the advantage of defining her situation, and cutting off her retreat. She would have liked to show the two letters to Vance, but she refrained lest he should think she was trying to remind him of what she had given up for him. Such a reminder might seem like a claim, and in her heart she was afraid to make it; yet an instant later she thought: “Whatever happens, I must keep him now,” and seeing in a flash the desert distances of life without him she forgot her magnanimous resolve to respect his freedom.

To Vance, it was obvious, the whole episode had been less important. He had never even asked her how she knew she would not be able to obtain her freedom immediately; the question of divorce and marriage seemed to have dropped out of his mind. “He takes what I say so literally,” she reflected, “that I daresay he thinks I really don’t care about it”; yet the possibility that he might think so was a surprise to her. But no doubt he had had many lovers’ quarrels with Laura Lou, perhaps with other women of her type, and was used to pacifying them with a kiss and a present. Probably he regarded such incidents as inevitable interruptions to his work, and had learned to dismiss them from his mind as soon as they were over . . . Ah, if only he were working now! If she could have seen any returning impulse of activity, any trace of that impatience to express himself which had been his torment and rapture when she had first known him, how eagerly she would have banished her anxieties, how jealously she would have defended his privacy! The hours he spent away from her were not spent in solitary toil, but in dreaming and dawdling, or in long discursive sessions with Alders at restaurants and cafés. She made a fresh effort to conceal her dislike of Alders, and he sometimes came up to the pension to dine, and went with them afterward to the tawdry dances in the gypsy quarter, or to concerts of local music in the cafés. But Alders was never wholly at his ease with her, and was therefore less entertaining to Vance than when the two were alone. “He gets all wooden when you’re around. I guess he’s woman-shy. I can see he doesn’t amuse you,” Vance commented unconcernedly. Halo understood the reason; she saw that Alders knew she had taken his measure, and that he ascribed her lack of cordiality to his not being exactly in her class. To Alders, the victim of unsatisfied social cravings, she was the fashionable woman in whose company he was not at ease; whereas Vance, for whom social distinctions did not exist, felt no constraint in her presence because to him she was as different from every one else as a nymph or an angel. And after two or three evenings of heat and noise and bad tobacco in the sham underworld of gypsies and guitarists she let Vance rejoin his friend without her.

There was no physical jealousy in the irritation which his absences caused her. As a woman she was still sure of her hold; as a comrade and guide she felt herself superseded. When he began to work again he might still need her as audience and critic; but meanwhile his restless mind was always straying from her. He had begun to learn Spanish, and this was the only task he had persisted in. His insatiable intellectual curiosity made him chafe at the obstacle of a strange language; and tramping the streets with Alders was a quicker method of learning than reciting conjugations to a snuffy professor. Meanwhile, with the beginning of the autumn rains, their rooms had become too cold and damp, and they began to look about for others. But one morning Vance abruptly announced that he wanted to go for a couple of months to some sea-port in the south — say Malaga or Cadiz — where he could settle down to his new book in the proper environment.

“Your new book?” Halo echoed, eagerly.

Yes, he said; he was beginning to want to get to work again. And he ought to know something about life in a Spanish trading port if he was to situate his story there, oughtn’t he — the story of the young American sent over from Boston or Salem in the eighteen thirties, to learn the wine business in Spain: the subject Alders had first suggested. He’d been thinking it over a good deal lately, and gradually it had taken hold of him. He liked the idea of a heroine who could be called Pilar — she was to look like that little Virgin with the pear-shaped face that they’d seen at Cordova. Well — hadn’t Halo anything to say to the idea? he broke off, as she continued to listen in silence.

“I thought you meant to go on with ‘Magic’,” she said at length.

“Well, so I did — but now I don’t. I don’t suppose it’s any use trying to make you see. . .”

“I think I see. It’s perfectly natural that new scenes should suggest new subjects.”

He looked at her with a smile of relief. “I’m glad you feel that — ”

“Only you said you’d never do another story like ‘Instead’ — a ‘costume piece’, I mean. I thought you were determined not to go back to that, but always to do contemporary subjects.”

“Oh, these ‘neverses’ and ‘alwayses’! Who was the gent who talked about some word or other not being in the lexicon of youth? I’m sure the lexicon of art has no hard-and-fast words in it like always and never. I do what I’m moved to do; any artist, even the greatest of ’em, will tell you it’s all he CAN do. It’s the eternal limitation . . . See here, Halo, I didn’t mean to bother you again with this kind of talk. Nobody but a writer can understand — but you must trust me to know what I’m after; what I’m driven after, as it were.”

She recognized the Alders vocabulary, and said with a slight shrug: “What I do understand is that it will do you good to get to work again.”

Instantly his eyes darkened. “Ah, that’s it! You’re disappointed in me — you think I’ve just been losing my time all these months?”

“We shall be able to judge of that better when you begin to write again,” she answered, smiling.

“All right, then. What do you say to Cadiz? The climate’s better there, isn’t it? Or I might call her Concepcion, perhaps — that’s even funnier, if she’s to be married to a Puritan from Salem. Don’t you think so?”

Halo hesitated. She had meant, when they left Granada, to propose that they should go to Florence or Rome for the winter. She felt that Vance needed the stimulus of a cultivated society; she would have suggested Paris if their situation had not made it embarrassing for her to settle down in a city where, at every turn, she was sure to run across friends and acquaintances. Until the matter of the divorce was settled in one way or another she preferred to avoid such encounters. But now she decided that she must let him have his way, lest he should feel that, at the very moment when his writing mood returned, she had needlessly interfered with it. “By all means, let’s try Cadiz,” she agreed.

“But you don’t believe in my idea for the new novel?”

“I believe in your trying it out, at any rate.”

“You’re a great girl, Halo,” he said joyously. “I love the way you look when you hate a thing, and think you can persuade people that you like it.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to answer: “I suppose you mean the way I look at Alders — ” but she refrained, and merely said with a laugh: “It’s the first principle of every woman’s job.” Inwardly, she was wondering what had made Vance suddenly decide to go to Cadiz. She felt sure that Alders had suggested the change, and that he had his own reasons for wishing to exchange Granada for the south. But the next day Vance asked her if she would mind if Alders came up to say goodbye. She minded so little that she had to bear in mind Vance’s remark on her inability to conceal her feelings. “Goodbye? Oh, Alders is off too, is he? Yes, of course I’ll see him.” But she still felt that, unless Alders had found some one else to prey on conversationally, this leave-taking was probably only a feint.

Alders appeared punctually, and overcame his shyness sufficiently to thank her for her kindness, and mumble something about its being a privilege he would never forget. She was on the point of asking him if he would not be turning up later at Cadiz; but she refrained lest he should act on the suggestion, and merely remarked that she supposed he thought the time for leaving Spain had come.

“No, not leaving Spain; I don’t expect to do that for some time. Only leaving Granada.” With increased timidity he explained that he was joining a big shooting party in Estremadura — rather a romantic sort of affair, as they were to stay in a fortified castle among the mountains, a place belonging to the old Marquesa. Her sons had organized the party in honour of a young cousin from Palermo who had come to Spain for the first time, to visit the Marquesa; and as he didn’t know a word of Spanish, and as Alders spoke Italian, the latter had been invited to join the expedition — “in the character of interpreter,” Alders added, with a fresh access of modesty which manifestly invited contradiction.

“The poor young man — what a blessing for him to find somebody he can talk to!” Halo said cordially; and Vance added: “And somebody who knows the country inside out, like Alders.”

“Oh, he’s very much on the spot; he’ll make his own discoveries. But it will be amusing to do what I can. As a collector of human antiquities, these great heraldic names always appeal to me.” Alders addressed himself to Halo: “I once planned out a book on the relation between heraldry and religious symbolism. Take the Babylonian Fish God, for instance, who figures in the Zodiac, and then in the Roman catacombs as the sacred emblem of the Christ . . . and finally as the armes parlantes of some great mediæval family. I am sure you will recall which, Mrs. Weston? The idea is not without interest . . . But you’ve so many friends in European society,” Alders broke off. “Very likely you know the Marquesa’s cousin. It’s a great name in Calabria . . . there’s a cousinship with the Spanish Bourbons.” He waited long enough to enjoy the taste of his own words, and to let Halo enquire the name. “The Duke of Spartivento,” he replied devoutly.

After Alders had taken his leave, Vance sat indolently swinging his legs in the window-seat, while Halo returned to the task of sorting their books and gathering up the odds and ends which had accumulated in their little sitting-room. They had engaged places in the motor-coach for Cadiz, and both were full of the happy excitement of departure.

“What was that he called his new friend?” Vance mused. “It sounded like a thunderclap.”

“Spartivento.”

“Well, that’s some name. What does it mean? Windjammer, I suppose?”

“More like wind-divider, I should say. It’s the name of a big promontory off the coast of Southern Italy or Sicily. Calabria, probably, as the family come from there.”

“Why, are there real people called that? I had an idea Alders had made it all up. He gets word-drunk, sometimes.”

“Oh, no. Not this time. It’s really one of the titles of an old Italian family. I’ve often heard of them.”

Vance lapsed into a marvelling silence until Halo, looking up from her work, abruptly accused him of having spirited away Ford’s “Gatherings in Spain”. But he merely declared that he knew where the book was, and stood staring at her with visionary eyes. “What a name! What a name! It sounds like that poem of Christopher Smart’s, with every line beginning ‘Glorious’. I should hate to have to live up to it, though, wouldn’t you?”

Halo, absorbed in her task, replied absently that very likely the owner didn’t; and Vance continued to murmur: “Spartivento — Spartivento: the wind-divider. Dividing the winds. Why, that’s what genius ought to do, isn’t it?”

“Genius,” Halo replied gaily, “ought first of all to find me ‘Gatherings in Spain’.”

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