The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton


Vance, when he left the quay, had meant to turn homeward. He liked strolling at twilight through the Luxembourg quarter, where great doorways opened on courtyards with mouldering plaster statues, where the tall garden walls were looped with bunches of blueish ivy, and every yard of the way, behind those secretive walls, a story hung like fruit for him to gather. But he found it harder than ever to leave the Seine. Each moment, as night fell, and the lights came out, the face of the river grew more changing and mysterious. Where the current turned under the slopes of Passy a prodigal sunset flooded the brown waves with crimson and mulberry; at the point where he stood the dusky waters were already sprinkled with fluctuating lights from barges and steamboats; but toward the Louvre and Notre–Dame all was in the uncertainty of night.

Tolby and Savignac were to come that afternoon to hear him read the first chapters of his new novel: “Colossus”. After pouring out to them, the night before, his large confused vision of the book, Vance had suggested their hearing what he had already written; but he regretted it now, for in the discussion which had followed they had raised so many questions that he would have preferred not to show the first pages till he had worked over them a little longer. Besides, in the excitement of talking over his project, he had forgotten that if they came for the promised reading Halo would find out for the first time that he was at work on a new novel. Vance had not meant to keep his plan a secret from her; in such matters his action was always instinctive. His impulse was simply to talk over what he was doing with whichever listener was most likely to stimulate the dim creative process; and that listener was no longer Halo. Vance was sure that he loved her as much as ever, was as happy as ever in her company; it was not his fault or hers if the deep workings of his imagination were no longer roused by her presence.

This did not greatly trouble him; he took his stimulus where he found it, as a bee goes to the right flower. But since Halo’s outburst at Granada, when he had gone to the old Marquesa’s without her, he had felt in her a jealous vigilance which was perhaps what checked his confidences. She seemed to resent whatever excluded her from his pursuits; but though it troubled him to hurt her he could not give up the right to live his inner life in his own way, and the conflict disquieted and irritated him. Of late he had forgotten such minor problems. When he was planning a new book the turmoil of his mind was always enclosed in a great natural peace, and during those weeks of mysterious brooding he had not once thought of what Halo would think or say; but now he felt she would be hurt at his having told Tolby and Savignac of the new book before she knew of it.

His first idea was to get hold of his friends and put off the reading; but a glance at his watch showed that they must already be at the studio awaiting him. The worst of it was that they had probably told Halo what they had come for . . . “Oh, hell,” Vance groaned. He stood still on the crowded pavement, thinking impatiently: “If only I could cut it all — .” Well, why shouldn’t he? This book possessed him. What he wanted above everything was to be alone with it, and away from everybody for a day or two, till he could clear his mind and get the whole thing back into its right perspective — just to lie somewhere on a grass-bank in the sun, and think and think.

He looked up and down the quays, and then turned and signed to a taxi. “Gare de Lyon!” he called out. He felt suddenly hungry, and remembered that somebody had said you could get a first-rate meal at the Gare de Lyon. Dining at a great terminus, in the rush of arrivals and departures, would give him the illusion of escape; and the quarter was so remote that by the time he got home his friends would probably have left, and Halo have gone to bed . . . and the explanation could be deferred till the next day.

In the station restaurant a crowd of people were eating automatically in a cold glare of light. He had meant to order a good dinner, and then wander aimlessly about the streets, as he liked to do at night when ideas were churning in him. But the sight of all those travellers with their hand-luggage stacked at their feet, and something fixed and distant in their eyes, increased his desire to escape, and again he thought: “Why not?” He snatched a sandwich from the buffet, and hurried to the telegraph office to send a message to Halo; then, his conscience eased, he began to stroll from one platform to another, consulting the signboards with the names of the places for which the trains were leaving . . . Dijon . . . Lyons . . . Avignon . . . Marseilles . . . Ventimiglia . . . every name woke in him a different sonority, the deeper in proportion to the mystery. Lyons, Marseilles — the great cities — called up miles of streets lined with closely packed houses, and in every house innumerable rooms full of people, all strange and remote from him, yet all moved by the common springs of hunger, lust, ambition . . . That vision of miles and miles of unknown humanity packed together in stifling propinquity, each nucleus revolving about its own tiny orbit, with passions as intractable as those that govern heroes and overthrow kingdoms, always seized him when he entered a new city. But other names — Avignon, Ventimiglia, Spezia — sang with sweeter cadences, made him yearn for their mysterious cliffs and inlets (he pictured them all as encircled by summer seas). His geography was as vague as that of a mediaeval mapmaker; but he was sure those places must be at least as far off as Cadiz or Cordova, and he turned reluctantly from the enchanted platform.

On a signboard farther on he saw a familiar name: Fontainebleau. Though it was so near he had never been there; but he knew there was a forest there, and he felt that nothing would so fit in with his mood as to wander endlessly and alone under trees. He saw that a train was starting in ten minutes; he bought his ticket and got in.

A man in the compartment, who said he was an American painter, told Vance of an inn on the edge of the forest where he would be away from everybody — especially from the painters, his adviser ironically added. He himself was going on to Sens, where they didn’t bother you much as yet . . . Vance got out at Fontainebleau, woke up the keeper of the inn, and slept in a hard little bed the dreamless sleep of the runaway schoolboy.

The next morning he was up early, and as soon as he could coax a cup of coffee from the landlady he started off into the forest. He did not know till then that he had never before seen a forest. In America he had seen endless acres of trees; but they were saplings, the growth of yesterday. Here at last was an ancient forest, a forest with great isolated trees, their branches heavy with memory, gazing in meditative majesty down glades through which legendary cavalcades came riding. For miles he walked on under immense low~spreading beeches; then a trail through the bracken led him out on a white sandy clearing full of fantastic rocks, where birch-trees quivered delicately above cushions of purplish heather. Still farther, in another region, he came on hollows of turf brooded over by ancient oaks, on pools from which waterbirds started up crying, and grass-drives narrowing away to blue-brown distances like the background of tapestries. The forest seemed endless; it enclosed him on every side. He could not imagine anything beyond it. In its all-embracing calm his nervous perturbations ceased. Face to face with this majesty of nature, this great solitude which had stood there, never expecting him yet always awaiting him, he felt the same deep union with earth that once or twice in his life he had known by the seashore.

After a while he grew tired of walking, and lay down to ponder on his book. In that immemorial quiet the voice of his thoughts came to him clear of the other voices entangling it. He had tried to explain the book to his two friends, and he knew he had failed, perhaps because he could not detach his own ideas from the dense thicket of ideas which flourished in the air of Paris. Or perhaps his friends’ minds were too well-ordered and logical to tolerate the amorphous mass he had tried to force into them. “Colossus” — he had pitched on the title as expressing that unwieldy bulk.

The endless talks about the arts of expression which went on in the circle presided over by Lorry and Jane Meggs had roused in Vance a new tendency to self-analysis. Especially when they discussed the writing of fiction — one of their most frequent themes — he felt that he had been practising blindly, almost automatically, what these brilliant and intensely aware young people regarded as the most self-conscious of arts. Their superior cultivation made it impossible to brush aside their theories and pronouncements as he had the outpourings of the young men in Rebecca Stram’s studio; he felt compelled to listen and to examine their arguments, fallacious as some of them seemed.

When they said that fiction, as the art of narrative and the portrayal of social groups, had reached its climax, and could produce no more (citing Raphael and Ingres as analogous instances in painting) — that unless the arts were renewed they were doomed, and that in fiction the only hope of renewal was in the exploration of the subliminal, his robust instinct told him that the surface of life was rich enough to feed the creator’s imagination. But though he resisted the new theories they lamed his creative impulse, and he began to look back with contempt on what he had already done. The very popularity of “The Puritan in Spain” confirmed his dissatisfaction. A book that pleased the public was pretty sure not to have been worth writing. He remembered Frenside’s saying that “Instead” was a pretty fancy, but not to be repeated, and he knew that “The Puritan” was simply a skilful variation on “Instead”. Evidently he was on the wrong tack, and his clever new friends must be right. . .

But what was the alternative they proposed? A microscopic analysis of the minute in man, as if the highest imaginative art consisted in decomposing him into his constituent atoms. And at that Vance instantly rebelled. The new technique might be right, but their application of it substituted pathology for invention. Man was man by virtue of the integration of his atoms, not of their dispersal. It was not when you had taken him apart that you could realize him, but when you had built him up. The fishers in the turbid stream-of~consciousness had reduced their fictitious characters to a bundle of loosely tied instincts and habits, borne along blindly on the current of existence. Why not reverse the process, reduce the universe to its component dust, and set man whole and dominant above the ruins? What landmarks were there in the wilderness of history but the great men rising here and there above the herd? And was not even the average man great, if you pictured him as pitted against a hostile universe, and surviving, and binding it to his uses? It was that average man whom Vance wanted to depict in his weakness and his power. “Colossus” — the name was not wholly ironic; it symbolized the new vision, the great firm outline, that he wanted to project against the petty chaos of Jane Meggs’s world. Only, how was it to be done?

He tried to carry over his gray theory into the golden world of creation; but the scents and sounds of the forest made him drowsy, and he lay on a warm slope, gazing upward, and letting the long drifts of blue sky and snowy cumulus filter between his eyelids.

Presently he grew hungry, and remembered that before starting he had stuffed his pockets with sandwiches and a flask of wine. He made his meal, and continued to lie on the grass-bank, smoking and dozing, and murmuring over snatches of sylvan poetry, from Faust’s Walpurgis ride to the branch-charmed oaks of Hyperion.

At last he got up, shook the tufts of grass from his coat, and wandered on. The afternoon was perfect. The sun poured down from a sky banked with still clouds, and the air smelt of fading bracken and beech-leaves, and the spice of heather bloom. Why couldn’t he always live near a forest, have this populous solitude at his door? What were cities and societies for but to sterilize the imagination? People were of no use to him, even the cleverest, when it came to his work — what he needed was this tireless renewal of earth’s functions, the way of a forest with the soul. . .

He pulled off his coat and swung along in his shirtsleeves, glowing with the afternoon warmth of the woods. It seemed impossible that outside of those enchanted bounds winds blew, rain fell, and the earth plunged on toward a decaying year. He thought of purple grapes on hot trellises, of the amber fires of Poussin’s “Poet and the Muse”, of Keats’s mists and mellow fruitfulness, and the blue lightning-lit windows in the nameless church. He had lost all sense of direction, and did not know whether he was near the edge of the forest, or far from it, when suddenly he came on an open space flooded with sun, and a bank where a girl lay asleep. At least he supposed she was asleep, from the relaxed lines of her body; but he could not be sure, for she had opened her sunshade and planted it slantwise in the ground, so that its dome roofed her in, and hid her face.

Vance stood and looked at her. She was as sunlit and mysterious as his mood. A dress of some thin stuff modelled the long curves of her body; her ankles were crossed, and the slim arched feet, in sandal-like shoes, looked as if feathers might grow from them when she stirred. But she lay still, apparently unaware of him and of all the world.

He gazed at the picture in a mood of soft excitement. He wanted to lift the sunshade and surprise the wonder in her eyes. But would she be surprised? No; only a little amused, he thought. Dryads must be used to such encounters, and she would simply fit him into her dreams, and put her arms around his neck and her lips to his.

Perhaps every man had his Endymion-hour — only what if Diana, instead of vanishing in a silver mist, should say: “Let’s go off together,” and give Endymion her address? No . . . she must remain a part of his dream, a flicker of light among the leaves. . .

He turned away, still in the nymph’s toils. As he walked on he saw coming toward him a stoutish common-looking young man with a straw hat tilted back on his head, and a self-satisfied smile on a coarse lip. He wore a new suit of clothes and walked jauntily, swinging his stick and glancing ahead as if in pleasant expectation — an ordinary, not unkindly-looking youth, evidently satisfied with himself and what awaited him. Was he on his way to meet the roadside dryad? Had she fallen asleep as she lay in the sun and waited? Vance was annoyed by the thought; in looking at the man’s face he seemed to have seen the girl’s, and the world of earthly things re-entered the forest. He did not scorn those earthly things; a common good-natured man kissing a flushed girl under a tavern arbour was a pleasant enough sight. But he wanted something rarer in his memory of the forest, and he turned indifferently from the meeting of Diana and Endymion.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02