The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

Book II


On a day of the following September Vance Weston was walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse.

He seemed to himself a totally different being from the young ignoramus who had left New York with Halo Tarrant a year previously. To begin with, he was the author of a second successful novel. “The Puritan in Spain”, dashed off in a rush of inspiration during the previous autumn and winter, had come out in the spring, and attained immediate popularity. It was a vivid tale, sultry and savage as the Spanish landscape — so one reviewer said. Another compared it with “Carmen”, to Mérimée’s disadvantage; and a third declared that it combined the psychological insight of Tchekov with the sombre fatalism of Emily Brontë.

Vance did not wholly share these views. The thing had come too easily; he knew it had not been fetched up out of the depths. When he was among friends and admirers, with the warm breeze of adulation blowing through him, he remembered that greater geniuses had suffered from the same dissatisfaction, and his disbelief in his book grew more intermittent. But when he was alone he recalled the passionate groping conviction with which he had written “Instead”, and the beginning of the unfinished novel, “Magic”, and the feeling returned that those two books had been made out of his inmost substance, while the new one sprang from its surface. “The Puritan in Spain” was better written and more adroitly composed than its predecessors; there were scenes — little Pilar’s death, or young Ralston’s return to Salem — that Vance could not re-read without a certain pleasure. These scenes had assuredly been written with the same conviction as those in the earlier books; yet now he felt only their superior craft. One half of him was proud of the book, and believed all that his readers said in praise of it; but the other half winced at their praise. “What’s the use of doing anything really big? If ever I do, nobody’ll read it . . . Well, and what if they don’t? Who am I writing for, anyhow? Only the Mothers!” he thought savagely.

He swung along down the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail to the Seine. The sight of moving waters always arrested him, and he leaned on the parapet and watched the breeze crisp the river. The sun-flecks on the water mimicked the yellowing leaves of the trees along the banks, and streets and river were dappled with the same gold. Vance felt young and happy, and full of power. “Wait till I get my teeth into the next — ” he thought, his joyous eyes on the river, the boats, the bridges, the gray palaces seen through fading trees. He would have liked to spend the rest of his life in that setting of foliage and buildings; yet he was beginning to feel that he would never get to work while he remained in Paris. “The Puritan in Spain” had been written in three months at Cadiz, in solitude and monotony — for the life there, alone with Halo, had been desperately monotonous. They knew no one; his friend Alders had vanished, and Vance had made no new acquaintances. He had imagined that once he was at work Halo’s presence would be the only stimulus he needed; and no doubt it was, since the book had been written. But he had not felt her imagination flaming through him as it had when they used to meet at the Willows. The dampening effect of habit seemed to have extinguished that flame. She listened intelligently, but she no longer collaborated; and now that the book was done he knew she did not care for it. Perhaps that was the real source of his dissatisfaction; he told himself irritably that he was still too subject to her judgments.

During their first months together he and she had lived in a deep spiritual isolation; at times they seemed too close to each other, seemed to be pressing on each other, pinning down each other’s souls. With the first intrusion from the outside, with the appearance of his queer friend Alders, from being too near they had suddenly become too far apart, at times almost out of sight; and since Alders had left them, and they had gone to Cadiz, there had been something strained and self-conscious in their relation, delicious though certain moments were.

His book finished, Vance was in a fever to get away, not only from Cadiz but from Spain; and Halo, after suggesting that they should end the winter in Italy, agreed that Paris might be best. She seemed to understand that after their months of solitude he needed the stimulus of a great city, the contact with conflicting views and ideas. He did not have to tell her — one never had to explain things to her. At first she had hesitated when he mentioned Paris, and he remembered her outbreak of resentment at not being invited to the old Marquesa’s, and was reminded that she was sensitive about meeting strangers to whom her situation had to be explained; but when he asked her if she would rather go to some quiet place where they needn’t bother with people she said she didn’t see why they should have to do with people who bothered them. Now that the book was done, she added, he ought to go about again, and see something of the literary world; and so they decided on Paris.

Halo, almost at once, found a little flat with a studio, in a shabby friendly house near the Luxembourg; and her brother Lorry Spear, who had been living for some years in Paris, helped the pair to settle down, and introduced them to his friends. Vance had last seen Lorry Spear on the day when the latter had borrowed ten dollars of him. Lorry had never returned the ten dollars, and had figured mysteriously in a far more painful episode. Some valuable books had disappeared from the library of the Willows, which then belonged to old Mr. Tom Lorburn, Mrs. Spear’s cousin, and Mr. Lorburn had suspected Vance of stealing and selling them. They had eventually been found at a second-hand bookseller’s, and brought back (it was whispered) by Lewis Tarrant; and no more was said, or suggested, as to Vance’s connection with the incident. But Vance knew, and so did Halo, that Lorry Spear had been the last person in the library of the Willows before the books vanished, and that he had been there alone.

This had left an unpleasant taste in Vance’s mouth; but he had travelled too far from the raw boy of those days to be much affected by what concerned him; and like everything which did not strike to the quick, the affair had faded from his mind. Moreover he knew that Halo was fond of her brother, though aware of his weaknesses, and that she was glad to be near him again.

Life in Paris had roused in Vance a thousand new curiosities and activities. So far he had chiefly frequented the young men and women who met at the literary cafés of Montparnasse, and at the studios of the painters and decorators of the same group. In this world Lorry Spear was an important figure. He had made a successful start as a theatrical designer (also, it was rumoured, with Tarrant’s aid) and his big studio in the painters’ quarter off the Boulevard Raspail was the centre of an advanced group of artists and writers. A young woman with violently red hair and sharp cheek-bones presided over it when she could spare the time from a mysterious bookshop in the Latin Quarter, which she and a girl friend managed. The red-haired young lady, whose real name was Violet Southernwood, had been re-christened Jane Meggs when she threw in her lot with Lorry, who declared himself unable to endure the sound of so nauseatingly pretty a name. “A flower and a tree — southernwood’s a shrub, isn’t it? Well, anyway, I don’t want anybody around here who smells of nature to that extent. And I should have had to call myself Mossy Stone, which would — what? Oh, well, Jane don’t mind a joke, do you, my own?”

Miss Meggs said what nauseated HER was having to associate with anybody who got his jokes out of Wordsworth; but Lorry replied that Wordsworth was the author of some of the most virulently hideous lines in English poetry, and would soon be recognized as the Laureate of the new school of the Ugly-for-the-Ugly — “which is all ye need to know,” he ended, while Miss Meggs groaned: “Lord — and he’s read Keats too!”

Such pleasantries were too reminiscent of the Cocoanut Tree, and Rebecca Stram’s studio, where Vance had picked up his first smattering of the new culture, and he preferred Alders’s second~rate learning to this wholesale rejection of the past. But the group contained other elements. Among the young men, would-be writers and painters, who laughed at Lorry’s oracles, and idled away the hours capping each other’s paradoxes, there were a few, French or English, who had joined the circle out of curiosity, and the exuberance of youth, but had already taken its measure. With two or three of them Vance and Halo had at once made friends, and founded a little circle of their own. These young men all professed the philosophic nihilism which was the creed of their group; but they were scholarly, analytical, intellectually curious and the cheap fireworks of Lorry’s followers no longer satisfied them. What interested Vance, however, was less the nature of their views than the temper of their minds. He felt in all of them the fine edge of a trained intelligence — the quality he had always groped for without knowing what to call it or how to acquire it. Now, wherever he went, he seemed to meet it; as though it were as much a part of Paris as the stately architecture, the beauty of streets and river, and the sense of that other accumulated beauty stored behind museum walls. All through this great visual symphony he felt the fine vibrations of intelligence, the activity of high~strung minds. The young men who sat the night through talking with him were but obscure participants in this vast orchestration; but its rumour was always behind their talk. At first the life satisfied all Vance’s needs. To look and listen and question was as stimulating as creation. Then, as always happened, he began to feel the need of setting his mind to work on the new material he had amassed, away from the excitement of discussion. This rhythmic recurrence of moods seemed to be a law of his nature, but he did not know how to formulate it to himself, still less to make it clear to Halo. It seemed hopeless to try to explain his sudden impulses of flight from everything that was delighting his imagination and expanding his mind. As he leaned on the parapet in the September sunshine he was thinking of this, not irritably or even impatiently, but with a sort of philosophic detachment. Communion with Halo had once been the completion of his dreams; now, when his thoughts took flight, she was the obstacle that arrested them. When he thought of her he felt almost as hopeless of explaining himself as he had with Laura Lou. She, who was alive and vibrating at so many points, failed to feel the rhythm of his inner life. Everything on the surface of his intelligence she instantly caught up and flashed back; he could laugh and talk with her by the hour in the freedom of perfect understanding. But of the forces stored in him during his solitary wanderings, and his talks with this group of young men, she guessed nothing, perceived nothing; and to this he had made up his mind without any feeling of loneliness or resentment. He was beginning to discover that he no longer needed a companion in these explorations of the depths; what he most wanted then was to be alone.

Now and then he and Halo went off for a weekend, to see some of the wonderful places she had told him about. The first time Vance was alight with fervour and curiosity. They had chosen Senlis, and loitered all day around its ramparts, in its ancient streets, and on the wall overlooking the mossy golden flanks of the cathedral tower. Then they went down into the square before the west front of the cathedral, and stood gazing at the death of the Virgin over the west portal, and at the saints and prophets poised among the delicate grasses and lichens of the cornice. Vance was in the state of receptiveness into which great impressions steal like angels. If he had been alone, and had not had to tell Halo how beautiful he thought it, his well-being would have been complete.

The experiment was so successful that Halo was eager to repeat it; and soon afterward they went to Chartres. She had decided that they must spend the night there, so that Vance should see the cathedral in all its aspects, at dusk, at sunrise, under the stars, and when noonday jewelled its windows; she gave him the impression that they were going on a kind of spiritual honeymoon. It was unlucky that the day before he had been seized by the desire to plan a new book, and was in that state of inward brooding when the visible world becomes a blank; but Chartres was Chartres, the treasury of visions and emotions, the fountain of poetry and dreams . . . He only wished he hadn’t read and heard so much about it. . .

And then, when at last he was face to face with the cathedral, he couldn’t see it. He stood there, a little lump of humanity, confronting a great lump of masonry; that was as far as he could get. All the overwhelmingness left him standing in front of it, open-eyed and utterly insensible. Halo led him from one façade to the other, and at each halt he felt her watching him in tender expectancy. At last they went in, and walked slowly about that vast luminous world — and still he felt nothing, saw nothing. A band of trippers dragged by, deaf and vacant-eyed, a guide buzzing about them with dates and statistics. Halo gave them a contemptuous glance; but Vance thought: “They feel the way I do.” Halo was elaborately tactful; she waited; she kept silent; she left him to his emotions; but no emotions came. He almost wished she would scream out: “Well, aren’t you going to say SOMETHING?” — and he thought despairingly: “When will it be over?”

They went to a little tea-shop and had tea (thank God!), and came back and saw twilight fall on towers and buttresses, and dusk deepen to night under the sculpture of the porches. They dined, and came back to see the blueish-gray mass shimmering gigantic under the stars. Then they wandered through the streets and stopped at a café for a glass of vermouth. Vance felt that he would soon have to say something, and he would have given the world to slip away before Halo spoke. “Well, dearest —?”

He emptied his glass, and stared sullenly into it. “Well, I just don’t see it.”

“Don’t SEE it?”

“Not a glimmer; not of what you expect me to . . . It’s not my size, I suppose.”

“Not your size?” Halo echoed, in the tone of one who has fitted Chartres into her cosmogony without an effort.

Vance felt the inadequacy of words. “I don’t SEE it, I tell you. I don’t care for it. There’s too much of it; yet there isn’t anything in it — not for me.”

Halo stood up and slipped her arm in his. “You’re simply overwhelmed by it — as you were that first evening at Cordova. I was like that when I came here the first time; but tomorrow . . .”

“Oh, no; I don’t want to wait till tomorrow. I want to go home now. Can’t we — isn’t there a night train? There’s sure to be one. . .”

He would have liked to tell her that his mind was full of his new book, passionately grappling with its subject. If he had, she would have been full of sympathy and understanding; but he did not want sympathy and understanding. He felt sulky and baffled, and wanted to remain so. The masculine longing to be left alone was upper most; he wanted to hate Chartres without having to give any reason.

“It’s not my size,” he repeated obstinately.

He saw the immensity of her disappointment. “I know — I’m a Yahoo. But let’s go home,” he pleaded. They caught a train, and got back to Paris, tired and heavy-eyed, at daylight; and for some time Halo proposed no more week-ends.

But one afternoon, a month later, he went off with two of the young men he had met at Lorry Spear’s — a young English painter named Arthur Tolby, and Savignac, a French literary critic. They were not in pursuit of sights; both his companions knew the environs of Paris well enough to take them for granted. But they knew of an inn, fifty miles away, where the food was good enough to satisfy the Frenchman, and there was a chance of trout-fishing for Vance and Tolby. They started in Tolby’s rattling motor, hours later than the time appointed, and toward sunset came to a town of which Vance was too lazy to ask the name. As they reached it, a sudden thunderstorm rolled up and burst above them. The sky was black, the roads became riverbeds. They decided to wait till the worst of the deluge was over, and Tolby took his car to a garage for a little tinkering. The young men dropped Vance under the porch of a church, and he went in to get shelter. His thoughts were all tangled up in his new novel — a big unwieldy subject full of difficulty and fascination. When he entered the church in this unknown town his eyes were closed to the outer world; he simply wanted to take refuge from the weather. The church was empty, immense, and dark as night. There was a cluster of candles before a distant shrine, but the nave and aisles were unlit, and the thunder-cloud hung its pall before the windows. Vance sat down, and was listening absently to the roar of the storm when a flash illuminated the walls of glass, and celestial fields of azure and rose suddenly embowered him. In another instant all was dark, as if obliterated by the thunder following the flash; then the incandescence began again — a flowering of magical sky-gardens in which every heavenly hue blossomed against a blue as dazzling as sunlight; and after each flowering came extinction.

Vance sat among these bursts of glory and passages of darkness as if alternate cantos of the Paradiso and the Inferno were whirling through him. At length his friends came, they scrambled into the motor, and he left the vision behind. To his companions he said no word of it; he did not even ask the name of the town. They reached their destination late, and sat half the night in the inn garden, watching the moon on a placid river, and talking about the new experiments in painting and literature, about Eddington and Whitehead, Pure Poetry and Thomism, and the best trout-flies for the stream they were to fish. . .

These memories flowed through Vance’s mind as he sat on the parapet looking across the Seine. His months in Paris had been rich in experience; if his receptivity sometimes failed him when Halo had most counted on it, he had secreted treasures unsuspected by her, such as the sights and sounds of the river, or that fragment of heaven torn from the storm in the unknown church. Surcharged and happy, he got up and strolled on.

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