The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

Book III


From the balcony of the little pink house Vance Weston looked out over a shabby garden and a barrier of palms to a bay between plum~blue headlands.

On this particular day the bay palpitated with glittering cubes of purple and azure that the waves tossed back and forth like mermaids playing with their jewels. To Vance these games of wind and water were a ceaseless joy. He was always leaving his work to watch the waves race in from the open sea, dodge past the guardian promontories, and fall crying on the beach below his balcony — those unquiet waves, perpetually escaping from something; cloud-shadows and sun-javelins, the silver bullets of the rain, the steady drive of the west wind’s flails. There were other days, very different, when they were not in flight, but like immense grazing flocks moved backward and forward over their smooth pastures to a languid secret rhythm; when a luminous indistinctness falsified the distances, and the wild bay became a placid land-locked sheet of water. Divine days too; but not as inspiriting as those of flight and pursuit, or as exciting as those when the storm caught the frightened waves and turned their hollows livid as the olive trees along the shore.

Vance laid down his pen and went out on the balcony. Coming up the path of the adjoining Pension Britannique, between untrimmed tea~roses and tough-leaved yuccas, was the perpendicular form of the eldest Miss Plummet. Her hand, cased in a black glove worn blue at the seams, clutched a string bag, through the interstices of which were visible some books from the English Chapel library, a bottle from the chemist’s, a handful of mandarins and a tiny bunch of faded anemones. Miss Plummet was almost as fascinating to Vance as the sea and the headlands. She represented, in all its angular purity, a vision as new and exotic: the English maiden lady whose life is spent in continental pensions kept by English landladies, and especially recommended by the local English chaplain. The type was familiar to Halo, so much of whose girlhood had been lived in continental pensions; but to Vance it was more novel and exciting than anything that Montparnasse could offer. “She’s got an outline, an edge; she’s representative. And what she represents is so colossal,” he would explain to Halo, pressing her for further elucidations about the kind of life that Miss Plummet’s family probably led at home, the kind of house she came out of, her background, her conception of the universe.

The passing of Miss Plummet always told Vance what time it was. Precisely at three every afternoon she returned from her shopping in the one narrow street of Oubli-sur-Mer, the little Mediterranean town curving its front of blotched pink-and-yellow houses along the harbour crammed with fishing-boats and guarded by a miniature jetty. Oubli-sur-Mer (Halo had explained, when she proposed to him that they should go there for the winter) was a queer survival: a pocket past which, since the war, fashion and money, jazz and cinemas, had swept eastward, leaving stranded in this dent of the coast, hemmed in by rusty pine-clad hills, the remnant of an old~fashioned English colony. The colonists were annually fewer, a dying race; but though the group had dwindled it held the more jealously to its habits and traditions, its English chaplain, English doctor, chemist, parish library, its sacred horror of “French ways”, and inability to understand the humour of “what French people call funny”.

But Vance never could give the proper amount of attention to Miss Plummet, for almost immediately after she had vanished into the interior of the Pension Britannique there always emerged from it Mrs. Dorman, the chaplain’s wife. Mrs. Dorman was spreading where Miss Plummet was vertical, ambling where the other was brisk. She belonged to the generation which had known the south of France to possess a warm winter climate, and her large mild face looked forth astonished under a spreading straw hat wreathed with a discouraged dust-coloured feather, while she grasped a sun-umbrella in one hand and with the other tightened her fur tippet. Vance called her the regional divinity because her dual precautions against the weather so aptly symbolized the extremes of temperature experienced at Oubli-sur-Mer in passing from sun to shade.

“I’m afraid the winter climate of the Riviera is not what it used to be; in old times we never DREAMED of covering up the Bougainvilleas,” Mrs. Dorman would invariably proclaim to new arrivals at the pension, to the distress of her landlady, Madame Fleuret, who was the widow of a French Protestant pasteur, but herself unassailably English. “If only,” Madame Fleuret privately complained, “she’d leave the new people alone till they’ve settled down, and made up their minds to have their letters sent here” — a view in which the Reverend Mr. Dorman heartily concurred. “But you know, dear Madame Fleuret, the Bishop DID agree with me,” Mrs. Dorman would gently protest, thereby recalling to Madame Fleuret’s irritated memory the disastrous visit of the Bishop of Drearbury. His lordship, having been ordered south by his physicians for a rest, and having singled out the Pension Britannique after protracted correspondence with Lady Dayes–Dawes, had arrived on a mistral day, when the olive trees were turned inside out, the gale screaming down the chimneys, and the fire smoking furiously in what Madame Fleuret had lately been trained to call the “lounge”; and it was at that disastrous moment that Mrs. Dorman had put her stereotyped question: “We do so hope you’re going to like the Riviera?” to which the Bishop, whom Mr. Dorman had just brought back from a good long walk in the teeth of the gale, had hissed out: “I’m afraid I don’t like your foliage.” (“If at least,” Madame Fleuret said afterward confidentially to the other ladies, “Mrs. Dorman would give them time to get used to the olives! It took me YEARS, I know; and there’s no use trying to hurry people.”)

Mrs. Dorman, Vance knew, was on her way to sit with Mrs. Churley, the wife of the retired Indian cavalry officer who lived up the hill. Colonel Churley, a long melancholy mahogany-coloured man with a drooping white moustache, and white rings under his pale blue eyes, walked past the pink house every morning to fetch his letters from the post office, and every afternoon to take a long tramp by himself along the shore or among the hills. He walked slowly, his arms clasped behind his back, his walking stick dragging through the dust, and looked neither to right nor left, but kept his stern eyes, under projecting shaggy brows, fixed steadily ahead of him, as if to avoid being accosted by acquaintances. Only when he met the Reverend Mr. Dorman, the short round chaplain, whose face was as rubicund as the other’s was dark, did Colonel Churley stop for a few words before resuming his mournful tramp. Mrs. Churley, crippled with rheumatism and half blind, lay all day on her sofa at Les Mimosas, the dismal-looking house up the hill, and Mrs. Dorman and Miss Plummet took turns to sit with her during her husband’s solitary rambles. Halo had offered to share their task, but Mrs. Dorman had explained, with some embarrassment, that the Churleys were very shy and unsociable, and perhaps it would be best . . . though Mrs. Weston was so very kind . . . and she would of course give the message . . . but Mrs. Weston mustn’t think it odd . . . even dear Lady Dayes–Dawes had never been allowed to call. . .

There was a Churley son, it appeared, a youth also said to be invalidish and unsociable; Vance had not yet seen him, but at times he was haunted by the thought that a young fellow, perhaps younger than himself, lived in that dreary house up the lane, in a place as lacking in youthful life as Oubli-sur-Mer. Mrs. Dorman had told Halo that young Churley was said to be “literary,” and the ladies of the Pension Britannique shook their heads when he was mentioned, as if small good was to be hoped of any one with such tendencies. The ladies had been shy of Vance too when they learned he was an author; but Halo had had the happy thought of giving the parish library a copy of “Instead”, his romantic early novel, and Miss Pamela Plummet, the invalid, who ranked as the leading literary critic of Oubli-sur-Mer, had pronounced it very pretty; after which, reassured, the Pension Britannique had taken “Mr. and Mrs. Weston” to its bosom.

The pension had made the acquaintance of the newcomers through the accident of their sudden arrival. Halo and Vance, after the latter’s encounter with Lewis Tarrant, had both felt the desire to get away from Paris; and Halo, with her usual promptness, had remembered the obsolete charms of Oubli-sur-Mer, got hold of some one who knew a house-agent there, and secured the little pink house after one glance at its fly-blown photograph. A week later they had packed up and evacuated the Paris flat; but their arrival in the south had been too precipitate for Halo to engage servants in advance. The restaurants on the quay were too far off, and the nearness of the Pension Britannique prompted her to seek its hospitality. It was against Madame Fleuret’s principles to receive boarders from outside; she was opposed to transients of any kind. Her established clients, she explained, did not like to be brought in contact with strangers, people you couldn’t tell anything about, and who might turn out to be “foreigners”, or even “peculiar”. But Halo’s persuasiveness, and the good looks and good humour of the young couple, had broken down her rule, and for a week Vance and Halo had been suffered to lunch and dine at the pension. It was then that Vance had laid in his store of impressions; had listened, fascinated, to the literary judgments of the invalid Miss Plummet on “The First Violin” and “Ships that Pass in the Night” (her favourite works of fiction); had gazed spell-bound on the mushroom hats and jet-beaded mantle of old Lady Dayes–Dawes, the baronet’s widow, who knew more knitting and crochet stitches than any one else at Oubli, and whose first cousin was a Colonial Governor; had hung delighted on the conversation of the Honourable Ginevra Hipsley, who kept white mice on whose sensibilities she experimented by means of folk-songs accompanied by the accordion, and about whom she wrote emotional letters to “Nature” and the “Spectator”; had followed the Reverend Mr. Dorman’s discreet attempts to ascertain if “Mr. and Mrs. Weston” belonged to the American branch of the Church of England (as their distinguished appearance made him hope) and would therefore be disposed to assist in the maintenance of the Bougainvillea-draped chapel in which he officiated, or whether they were members of one of the innumerable sects which so deplorably diversify the religious life of the States; and had gathered various items of information about the melancholy Churley family and the other British residents of Oubli-sur-Mer.

It was a little world seemingly given over to illness, poverty and middle-age; and the contrast between the faded faces and vanished hopes of its inhabitants and the boisterous setting of sun and gale that framed their declining days would have been depressing if Vance had not felt in them a deep-down solidarity of tastes and principles. It was enough that they all read the “Times”, and did not like vegetables cooked in the French way; in the rootless drifting world into which Vance had been born he had never (even among Halo’s friends and family) come across such a solid coral~isle of convictions. This little handful of people, elderly, disappointed and poor, forced by bad health or lack of means to live away from their country, drifting from pension to pension, or from one hired villa to another, with interests limited to the frugal and the trivial, yet managed by sheer community of sentiment to fit into the pattern of something big and immemorial. The sense of the past awakened in Vance by his first sight of the Willows, that queer old house on the Hudson which embodied a past so recent, now stirred in him more deeply at the sight of these detached and drifting fragments of so great a whole. It was odd, he thought, looking back: he hadn’t felt Chartres, yet he felt Miss Plummet and Colonel Churley. Perhaps even Halo wouldn’t have understood how it was that, seen from Euphoria, these human monuments seemed the more venerable.

Vance stood on the balcony and lit a cigarette. Behind him was his writing-table, scattered with the loose sheets of “Colossus”; before him, the joyous temptation of sun and sea. In the next room he heard the diligent click of Halo’s Remington, re-copying the third version of Chapter VII. The work wasn’t going as well as he had hoped; he thought enviously of the pace at which he had reeled off “The Puritan in Spain” the previous winter at Cadiz. What he was at now, of course, was a different matter; no glib tale, but a sort of compendium of all that life had given him — and received from him. He was attempting to transcribe the sum total of his experience, to do a human soul, his soul, in the round. At times, when his inspiration flagged, he told himself ironically that it looked as though he hadn’t had enough experience to fill many pages. Yet there were days when a grain of mustard-seed, like an Indian conjuror’s tree, would suddenly shoot up and scale the sky. He stood on the balcony, thinking restlessly of the sound of the wind in the pines along the shore, of the smell of lavender and sage on the hot slopes behind the town, and watching for the figure of Colonel Churley, gloomily silhouetted against the dazzling bay. If Miss Plummet were a moment late Vance could always put his watch right by Colonel Churley.

“Ready for the next!” Halo called.

“Yes. All right. . .” Ah, there the Colonel was, dragging his stick along behind him, punctual and desolate as a winter night. In another moment he would probably meet Mr. Dorman, and Vance would watch their two faces, one blankly melancholy, the other a~twitter with animation. But today Mr. Dorman was not visible, and Colonel Churley strode on, aiming for the hills. Vance shivered and turned indoors.

“All right. Only I’m afraid there’s nothing more coming,” he said.

As Halo looked up he saw a shade of disappointment cross her face and transform itself into a smile. “Another holiday?”

“Looks like it. I believe it’s the sea,” he said with a shrug.

“Well, you’d better go out and spend the rest of the day with it.”

He stood in the doorway, irresolute. “Come along?”

“I don’t believe I will. I want to go over the first chapters again.”

“What a life for you!”

She laughed. “Do I look as if I minded?”

“No. That’s what’s so trying about you. . .”

They laughed together, and Vance swung joyously down the stairs.

The little house was full of a friendly shabby gaiety. Halo always managed to give that air to their improvised habitations. On the ground floor, where the kitchen and dining-room were, she had hidden the dingy papering of the hall under a gay striped cotton, and had herself repainted and cushioned the tumbledown chairs in the verandah. Vance’s craving for order and harmony was always subtly gratified by this exercise of her skill. He recalled with a shudder the chronic disorder in which he had struggled through the weary years of his marriage, the untidy lair into which poor Laura Lou converted every room she lived in, the litter of unmended garments, half-empty medicine bottles and leaking hot-water bags that accumulated about her as lavender-scented linen, fresh window~curtains, flowers and books did about Halo — poor Laura Lou, who could never touch a fire without making it smoke, while Halo’s clever hands could coax a flame from the sulkiest log.

Vance, thinking of all this, and of the golden freedom awaiting him outside, recalled another day as bright and beckoning, when he had fled from the squalid Westchester bungalow, and the monotony of Laura Lou’s companionship, to wander in the woods and dream of a book he was never to write. He thought of the incredible change in his fortunes since then, of the love and understanding and success which had come to him together, and wondered why mercies of which he was so exquisitely aware had never yet stifled his old aching interrogation of life. He was glad to be at Oubli-sur-Mer, away from the incessant stimulus of Paris, in the country quiet which seemed a necessity to his creative mood. The queer little community, so self-contained and shut off from his own agitated world, gave him the sense of aloofness which his spirit needed; yet somehow — as so often before — the fulness of the opportunity seemed to oppress him, his work lagged under the very lack of obstacles.

He picked up his stick and cap, and was just emerging from the verandah when a young man who walked with a slight limp pushed open the garden gate. The visitor, a stranger to Vance, came toward him with an air of rather jaunty self-confidence. He had a narrow dusky face, with an unexpected crop of reddish hair streaked with amber tumbling over a broad forehead, and dark eyes with the look of piercing wistfulness that sometimes betrays spinal infirmity. A brilliant crimson tie, and a loudly patterned, but faded pull-over above a pair of baggy flannel trousers, completed his studied make~up.

“Mr. Weston? Would you give me an interview? I don’t mean for a newspaper,” the young man began abruptly, in a cultivated but slightly strident voice. “I’ve been asked to do an article for the ‘Windmill’, and I’d be awfully glad if you’d let me talk with you for a few minutes.”

Vance stood still in the path considering his visitor. He was not particularly interested in the idea of being interviewed or reviewed. From the outset of his literary career he had been unusually indifferent to the notoriety attained by personal intervention. He remembered the shock he had received, when he was reviewing for Lewis Tarrant on the “New Hour”, on discovering the insatiable greed for publicity of such successful novelists as Gratz Blemer. It was not that Vance was indifferent to success, but because its achievement seemed to him so entirely independent of self-advertising. Halo abounded in this view, partly (he suspected) from disgust at what she had seen of the inner workings of the “New Hour”, partly from an inborn disdain of any sort of cheap popularity. She wanted him to be the greatest novelist who had ever lived, and was still (Vance felt sure) gloriously certain of his eventually reaching that pinnacle; but she cared not a rush for the fame cooked up in editorial kitchens. As for Vance, though he had to the full the artist’s quivering sensitiveness to praise, and anguished shrinking from adverse criticism, he felt neither praise or blame unless it implied recognition of what he had been striving for. Random approbation had never, even in the early days, perceptibly raised his pulse; and his first taste of popularity had only made him more fastidious.

But the young man in the faded pull-over interested him for other reasons. That eager dark face, with its strange shock of bright hair tossed back from a too prominent forehead, was full of intellectual excitement.

“I hate interviews — don’t see any sense in them,” Vance began, but in a tone so friendly that his visitor rejoined with a laugh: “Oh, you’re thinking of the heart-to-heart kind, probably. With a snap~shot of yourself looking at the first crocus in your garden; or smoking a pipe, with your arm round a Great Dane.”

“Well . . .” Vance acknowledged. “Transposed into ‘Windmill’ terms. . .”

“Yes; I know. But that’s not my line. Honest to God, it isn’t, as you say in the States.” The young man looked at Vance with a whimsical smile. “I wish it were — for my bank-account. The human touch is worth its weight in gold, and outlives all the fashions. But all I care about is ideas; or else the world in which they are completely non-existent. And I prefer the latter, only it’s too expensive for me.” He paused, and then added: “My name’s Christopher Churley, by the way.”

“Oh — you live up the hill, then?”

“Well, if you call it living. I say, can I have my talk now? The ‘Windmill’ people are rather in a hurry. But of course if it’s not convenient — ”

Vance was looking at him with compassionate interest. This was the sombre Colonel’s son. The sombreness was there — Vance perceived it instantly, under a surface play of chaff and self-derision that was sadder than the father’s open gloom; but the youth’s look of flaming intelligence had no counterpart in the Colonel’s heavy stare.

“I was going for a tramp. But if you’d rather come in now and have a talk — ”

“Thanks a lot. You’ll let me, then?” Chris Churley’s eyes were illuminated. “But I don’t mind walking, you know; not if I can take it easy, on account of my limp; and if you’ll let me take the landscape for granted.”

“Oh, you can, can you? Take all this for granted?” Vance interrupted.

“Yes. Rather a pity, I suppose. I daresay there are lots of poor devils looking at cats on a tin roof through a fog who’d expand in this Virgilian setting. But I can’t. Give me the tin roof and the cats, if they’re in a metropolis. Though what I really prefer is artifice and luxury. I revel in a beautiful landscape transformed by the very rich; not just the raw material, like this. . .” He waved a contemptuous hand toward the bright sea and fretted coast~line. “What I care about, you see, is the landscape of the mind; the intellectual Alps. Or else cocottes and oil kings round a baccarat table.”

“Well, you’ve a wide range,” said Vance, somewhat distressingly reminded of the stale paradoxes dear to Rebecca Stram’s familiars and the satellites of Lorry’s studio.

Young Churley flushed up, and Vance saw his eyes darken as if in physical pain. “I suppose this sort of talk bores you. I daresay you’ve had everything. . .”

“Oh, have I? Look here,” said Vance good-naturedly, “come upstairs, and we’ll talk shop as much as you like, since Oubli doesn’t provide the other alternatives.” He pulled out his cigarettes, and offered them to young Churley. Decidedly the sight of the Colonel had not prepared him for the Colonel’s son.

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