The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton


He got back late to the inn, and after dining went to bed, and to sleep — the sleep of a young body replete with exercise, and a mind heavy with visions. But in the middle of the night, he sat up suddenly awake. The moon streamed across his bed and fringed with a blueish halo the chair and table between himself and the window. “Diana after all!” he thought, his brain starting into throbbing activity. He seemed to be in the forest road again, watching the sleeping girl; and he asked himself how he could have left her and gone on. There she had lain, mysterious goddess of the cross~roads, one of the wandering divinities a man meets when he is young, and never afterward; yet he had turned from her, afraid of disenchantment. What cowardice — what lack of imagination! Because he had seen a common-looking man coming toward her, and had concluded that she must be like him, he had run away from the magic of the unknown, the possibilities that lie in the folded hour. And now it was too late, and he would never see her again, or recapture his vanished mood. . .

It was not the fear of hurting Halo which had held him back. At the moment he had not even thought of her. But now he suddenly saw that, should he ever drift into a casual love-affair, she would probably suffer far more than poor Laura Lou with all her uncontrollable fits of suspicion and resentment. The idea was new to him; he had always pictured Halo as living above such turmoils, in the calm upper sphere of reason. But now he understood that her very calmness probably intensified her underlying emotions. There swept back upon him the physical and mental torture of his jealousy of Floss Delaney, the girl who had taught him the extremes of joy and pain, and he was oppressed by the thought that he might have made Halo suffer in the same way.

He wondered now how he, who vibrated to every pang of the beings he created, could have been so unperceiving and unfeeling. His imagination had matured, but in life he had remained a blundering boy. He had left Paris abruptly, without warning or excuse, he had not even followed up his vague telegram by a letter of explanation. But how explain, when the explanation would have been: “Darling, I love you, but I want to get away from you”? — After all, he mused, they were both free, and Halo knew that there are times when a man needs his liberty . . . But what if “liberty”, in such cases, means the license to do what would cause suffering if found out? License to wound, and escape the consequences? He lay on his bed, and stared into the future. How did two people who had once filled each other’s universe manage to hold together as the tide receded? Why, by the world-old compulsion of marriage, he supposed. Marriage was a trick, a sham, if you looked at it in one way; but it was the only means man had yet devised for defending himself from his own frivolity.

He was struck by something august and mysterious in the fact of poor humanity’s building up this barrier against itself. To the Catholic church marriage was a divine institution; but it seemed to him infinitely more impressive as an emanation of the will of man . . . He fell asleep muttering: “That’s it . . . we must be married . . . must be married at once . . .” and when he woke, Diana and the moon were gone, and the autumn rain clouded his window.

He woke in a mood of quiet. It was almost always so: after a phase of agitation and uncertainty, in which he seemed to have frittered away his powers in the useless effort to reconcile life and art, at the moment when he felt his creative faculty slipping away from him forever, there it stood at his side, as though in mockery of his self-distrust. So it had been when Laura Lou was dying, so no doubt it would be whenever life and art fought out their battle in him. He dressed and called for his coffee; then he sat down to write.

That girl in the forest! He knew now why she had been put there. To make his first chapter out of — glorious destiny! He laughed, lit a cigarette, and wrote on. Oh, the freedom, the quiet, the blessed awayness from all things! One by one the pages fell from table to floor, noiseless and regular as the fall of leaves in the forest. His isolation seemed invulnerable. Even the rain on his window was in the conspiracy, and hung its veil between his too~eager eyes and the solicitations of the outer world, shutting him into a magic-making solitude. . .

The day passed in that other-dimensional world of the imagination. His pen drove on and on. The very fact that Halo was not there to pick up the pages, and transfer them to the cool mould of her Remington, gave a glorious freedom to his periods. There they lay on the floor, untrammelled and unwatched as himself. He recalled the old days of his poverty and obscurity in New York, when he had sat alone in his fireless boarding-house room, pouring out prose and poetry till his brain reeled with hunger and fatigue; and he knew now that those hours had been the needful prelude to whatever he had accomplished since. “You have to go plumb down to the Mothers to fish up the real thing,” he thought exultantly.

Night came, and he turned on the weak electric light and continued to write. To his strong young eyes the page was as clear as by day. But at last the pen slipped from his hand, and sleep overcame him.

When he woke he felt chilly and hungry, his wrist was stiff, his eyes and forehead ached. The scribbled-over sheets lay at his feet in a heap — dead leaves indeed! He had come back to reality, and the world where he had spent those fervid hours had vanished in mist. He thought of Halo, of Paris, of all the interwoven threads of his life; he felt weak and puzzled as a child. “I must get back,” he said to himself; and he gathered up his papers.

It was late when he reached Paris; but he took his way home on foot through the drizzle, down the Boulevard Sebastopol to the Seine, and through the old streets of the left bank to the Luxembourg. He was trying to put off his home-coming; not because he was troubled by the excuses and explanations he might have to offer, but because he dreaded the moment when the last frail shreds of his dream should detach themselves. After one of these plunges into the depths he always rose to the surface sore and bewildered; it was a relief to know that at that hour Halo would probably be in bed and asleep, and explanations could be deferred till the morrow. “Unless,” he reflected, “she’s out — at the theatre, perhaps — or dancing.” It was the first time since they had been together that he had pictured Halo as having a life of her own, a personality of her own, plans, arrangements, perhaps interests and sympathies unknown to him. “Funny . . .” he reflected . . . “when I go away anywhere I always shut up the idea of her in a box, as if she were a toy; or turn her to the wall, like an unfinished picture. . .” And he recalled the distant days in New York, when he saw her so seldom, and when, in their long hours of separation, his feverish imagination followed her through every moment of her life, stored up every allusion to her friends, her engagements, hunted out the addresses of the people she had said she was lunching or dining with, and tried to picture the houses in which she was being entertained, what she was saying to the persons about her, and how her voice sounded when it was not to him that she was speaking. . .

He found his latchkey, and entered the narrow hall. The door leading to the studio was half-open. Through it he saw the lamp on his desk, a cluster of red dahlias in the brown jar, and a table near the fire with wineglasses, chafing-dish and a bottle of white wine. Such an intimate welcome emanated from the scene that he drew back with the shyness of an intruder. She was out; he had been right; but before starting she had prepared this little supper for her return. Supper for two; probably for Tolby and herself. She had always liked Tolby — the young Englishman was more like the type of man she had been used to in her own circle of friends. He had Tarrant’s social ease, the cool bantering manner which Vance had long since despaired of acquiring. Yes; she was probably with Tolby . . . The thought was curiously distasteful.

A door opened, and from the bedroom Halo came out. She had flung a crimson silk dressing-gown over her shoulders, and her dark hair fell about her temples in soft disordered curls. She looked sleepy, happy and unsurprised. “I thought you’d be back tonight.” She put her arm about his neck, and he plunged with all his senses into the familiar atmosphere of her perfume, her powder, the mossy softness of her hair. “I knew you’d be as hungry as a wolf,” she laughed, drawing him to the table by the fire. “Do you remember that night at Cordova? Come and see if I’ve provided the right things.”

He looked about him with a low satisfied laugh. “It’s good to get back,” he said, laying a kiss on her bare nape as she stooped above the chafing-dish. She turned her face, and he saw that it was all his, from trembling lashes to parted lips. “Well, how did the work go?” she asked, putting him aside while she bent to break the eggs into the dish; and he answered: “Oh, great — but the best of going away is the coming back. . .”

“Look! Fresh mushrooms!” she cried, uncovering another dish; and as the warm savour of the cooking filled the air he threw himself back into his armchair, folding his arms luxuriously behind his head and said, half-laughing, half-seriously: “Do you know I could have sworn I saw you yesterday in the forest, asleep under a white umbrella? But your face was hidden, so I couldn’t be sure.”

“And you didn’t look?”

“No, I didn’t look.”

She tossed him the corkscrew, scooped the smoking mess of eggs and mushrooms into their two plates, and said laughingly: “Come.”

He uncorked the Chablis, drew his chair up, and fell joyfully upon the feast. How she knew how to take a man, to ease off difficult moments, what to take for granted, what to leave unsaid! What he had told her was true; a home-coming like this was even better than the going away. A bright hearth, good food, good wine; the sense of ease, of lifted burdens, and a great inner exhilaration at the thought of work to come — this was how love repaid him for his escapade. He looked at Halo, and surprised her eyes fixed on his; and suddenly he felt that at the very heart of their intimacy the old problem lurked, and that never, even in their moments of closest union, would they really understand each other. But the sensation barely brushed his soul. The next moment it was expanding in the glow of fire and wine, and Halo’s eyes shone with the old confiding tenderness. He filled his glass and began to talk to her about the new book.

How easy it was now to pour out what he had so jealously guarded before! The fruit was ripe, and it was sweet to heap it at her feet as she sat listening in the old way, her lids lowered, her chin propped in her hand. Nothing escaped her — she listened with every faculty, as she used to in the long summer days at the Willows. She said little, put few questions; but when she spoke it was always to single out what he knew was good, or touch interrogatively on some point still doubtful. The night was nearly over when he gathered up his pages. “Lord — what an hour! I’ve tired you out; and I’ve never even asked what you’ve been up to while I was away.” With sudden compunction he put his arm about her.

“What I’ve been up to? Accepting dinner invitations for you, for one thing! You won’t mind? Lorry wants you to dine at the studio tomorrow: a big blowout for Mrs. Glaisher, who has developed a sudden interest in theatrical art and may possibly — he thinks probably — help him to produce his ballet. You know how hard he’s been trying for it.”

“Mrs. Glaisher? Who on earth’s Mrs. Glaisher?”

“Why, don’t you remember? One of the principal characters in your next-but-one-novel: ‘Park Avenue’. She’s waiting to sit to you: a Museum specimen of the old New York millionairess. If only she would subsidize ‘Factories’ Lorry’s future would be assured — or so he thinks. And he implores you on his knees to come and help him out. Mrs. Glaisher’s very particular; she’s named her guests, and the author of ‘The Puritan in Spain’ was first on the list. I’m sorry for you, darling — but you’ve got to go.”

“Oh, shucks,” Vance growled. “I don’t believe she ever heard of me.”

“How little you know of the world you’re trying to write about! Mrs. Glaisher has found out that it’s the thing for the rich to patronize the arts, and she means to eclipse Mrs. Pulsifer. Suppose she should found a prize for the longest novel ever written — just at the moment when ‘Colossus’ appears?” She put her arms about Vance’s neck and laughed up at him. “You’ll go, dear — just for Lorry?”

“Oh, all right; but don’t let’s think of boring things now.” He brushed her hair from her forehead, and looked deeply into her eyes; then, when she slipped away, he sank into his chair and abandoned himself to the joy of re-reading the words freshly illuminated by her praise.

When he pulled himself out of his brooding, and went to bed, Halo was asleep. He had carried in the lamp from the studio, and stood shading it with his hand while he looked down on her. Usually, when she slept, her features regained their girlish clearness; and she was once more the Halo Spear who had lit up the dark old library at the Willows; but now youth and laughter were gone, her face was worn and guarded. “This is the real Halo,” he thought; and he knew it was the effort to hide her anxiety behind a laughing welcome which had left those furrows between her eyes.

“If only,” he mused in a burst of contrition, “I could remember beforehand not to make her unhappy. . .”

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