The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton


The days passed heavily. Vance and Halo held no further communication with the Pension Britannique. Vance returned the cheque to Colonel Churley, with a note saying that the twenty pounds had been a gift to Chris, and that Chris was aware of it; and the following week a copy of Mr. Dorman’s parish bulletin was left at the pink villa, with an underscored paragraph announcing that Colonel Churley, in memory of his son, had given twenty pounds to the Church library (Purchasing Committee: the Chaplain, Lady Dayes–Dawes, Miss Plummet.) Vance was diverted at the thought of the works which would be acquired with this fund; he amused himself and Halo by drawing up a probable list, and they smiled over the brilliant additions that Chris would have made to it.

But Vance was still full of disquietude. Everything in his life seemed to have gone wrong, to have come to grief. He asked Halo, the day after Mrs. Dorman’s visit, if she would not like to leave Oubli; but she said with a smile that she didn’t see why they should alter their plans to suit the Pension Britannique. They had taken the villa for a year, and she wanted him to have a taste of the summer life, the boating and bathing, the long hot days on the sands. “There’ll be nobody to be scandalized then — the Pension Britannique closes in summer. If you suppose I mind what those poor women say,” she added carelessly; and he understood that nothing could be more distasteful to her than to seem aware that she was the subject of gossip and criticism.

Vance himself had no feelings of the sort. He resented furiously any slight to Halo, but saw no reason for appearing to ignore such slights. He supposed it was what he called the “Tarrant pride” in her; the attitude of all her clan; the same which had helped Tarrant to stiffen himself against the moral torture of his talk with Vance, and affect indifference when every nerve was writhing. It all seemed an obsolete superstition, as dead as duelling; yet there were moments when Vance admired the stoicism. He could think of girls — straight, loyal, decent girls — who, if they loved a man, and lived with him, would have gloried in the fact, and laughed at social slights and strictures. But Halo suffered acutely from every slight and stricture, yet bore herself with the gayest indifference. “All those old institutions — I suppose there was something in them, a sort of scaffolding, an armour,” he thought. He felt how often his own undisciplined impulses needed the support of some principle that would not have to be thought out each time.

But if Halo did not want to leave Oubli, he did; and she was not long in divining it. There was no longer any question of his working; the manuscript lay untouched. If he were ever to finish “Colossus” he must get away — get away at once. When he had lectured Chris on the evils of idleness he had little imagined that within a few weeks he would be exemplifying them. “I told him he’d be able to work fast enough if he had to — such rot! Look at me now!” he said bitterly.

“But it’s just because of Chris that you can’t work. You’re still suffering too much.”

“A good many books have been made out of suffering.”

“Perhaps; but not out of tattered nerves. You’ve got to get away.” He was silent. “Why not go to London?” she suggested suddenly. “It’s time you saw your publishers about ‘Colossus’. Go now; it’s just what you need. You could stay with Tolby, who’s so often invited you.”

Vance felt a rush of life in his veins. London — London! He remembered the look in Chris Churley’s eyes when he had heard the magic suggestion. “I wonder if my eyes look like that to Halo,” Vance thought with a twinge of compunction; but the twinge was fleeting. London, Madrid, Constantinople — it hardly mattered which. Freedom was what they all meant — change and freedom! And how good to see old Tolby again, and drop back into the current of their endless talks. Everything connected with the idea of departure seemed suddenly easy and inviting.

“You’d really rather stay here?” he faltered.

“I’d rather,” she smiled.

In the train, on the boat, and now in Tolby’s snug smoky quarters, Vance felt the same glow of liberation. With his first step on English soil had come the sense of being at home and at ease. The feeling of sureness and authority underlying the careless confidence with which life was conducted, soothed his nerves, and put him quietly yet not unironically in his place — a strangely small one, he perceived, yet roomy and comfortable as one of Tolby’s armchairs.

Tolby lived off the King’s Road, on top of a house divided into old~fashioned flats. Attached to his studio were two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a slit of a bathroom, with a geyser which had to be managed like a neurasthenic woman. “When you get to know her it’ll be all right; she’ll get tired of trying on her tricks. She’s always a bit nervous at first,” Tolby explained. No one else in the flat was nervous. From the kitchen, at stated intervals, a broad calm woman (who removed a black bonnet with strings when she entered the flat), appeared with crisp bacon, kippered herring, cold beef and large placid puddings. To Vance the diet was ambrosial. He delighted also in the tidiness of the studio, where everything was shabby and paintless, but neat and orderly, with a handful of spring flowers on the breakfast table, a pleasant fire in the grate, and a general seemliness that reminded him of Halo. “You must be glad to get back to this from Montparnasse,” he said with a sigh of satisfaction.

“Yes; when I’ve had enough talk.”

“Isn’t there any talk in London?”

“Yes; but it’s not a sport or a career. It’s done in corners — furtively.”

“At any rate,” Vance thought, “I’m not likely to hear any of that drivel that poor Chris ran after.”

Little by little the social immensities of London began to dawn on him, its groups within groups, each, in spite of all the broad~casting and modern fluidity, so walled in by silence and indifference, and he became more and more sure that there was no risk of any communication between Tolby’s group and Sir Felix Oster’s. Among the young painters and writers who came to the studio he found himself already known, but not what Floss Delaney would have called celebrated. These young people had read his books, and were interested in them but not overwhelmed. The discovery roused his slumbering energy, and he said to himself in a burst of creative enthusiasm: “They’re dead right about what I’ve done so far; but wait till they see ‘Colossus’ — I’ll show them!”

His first days were spent in wandering about the streets, alert yet dreaming, letting the panorama of churches, museums, galleries, stream through his attentive senses. Tolby, himself hard at work, seldom joined him till the evening, and then they either supped (since dining, in Tolby’s group, was out of fashion) with other pleasant busy people, chiefly writers or painters, or went to hear old music or to see new dancing. But by the end of the first week the desire to write had once more mastered Vance, and he shut himself up at his desk for long hours of the day.

On Saturdays he and his host went off on their bicycles to some quiet leafy place where there was an inn with a garden full of lilacs and tulips, or else they stayed with friends of Tolby’s in low-studded village cottages transformed into bungalows, with black cross-beams and windows latticed with roses. But as Vance grew more absorbed in his work even such outings became disturbing, and he asked to be left behind when Tolby went away for the next week~end.

Tolby took this as a matter of course (the blessed way they had in England of taking things like that!), and the following Saturday Vance, after his friend’s departure, turned with a grin of joy to his work.

Toward evening the opening of the door broke in on a happy cadence. The placid woman who purveyed the kippered herrings pronounced: “Mr. Fane”, and Vance’s memory added: “Of the ‘Amplifier’.” It was in fact Derek Fane, the young critic whom Vance had met at Savignac’s the previous autumn, and to whom he had given a verbal outline of “Colossus”. The book had undergone such changes that Vance was glad to see Fane again, and allowed the talk to be led to his work with more affability than he usually showed to interviewers. He knew his publishers were anxious that the “Amplifier” should make the most of his visit to London, and a talk with a critic like Derek Fane would be very different from the “third degree” applied by newspaper reporters. Fane was one of the quietest men Vance had ever met, even in England. Everything about him was muffled and pianissimo; he did his interviewing by listening. Vance could hardly recall his having put a question; but his silence was not only benevolent but acute. After Vance’s summing-up of the new “Colossus” he merely said: “It sounds as if you’d pulled it into shape”; but the remark carried such conviction that a glow of encouragement rushed through Vance.

The next morning the “Amplifier” had a brilliant survey of Vance’s past work, and a discerning account of his projected book, inserted into a picturesque impression of the King’s Road studio. Henceforth all literary and fashionable London, if it cared to know, would be aware of Vance’s presence.

The first result was a shower of invitations; one from Lady Pevensey headed the list. She besought Vance to climb to her little flat on the roof of a new West End sky-scraper for the most informal of after-theatre suppers. He would find just the people he liked, and must of course bring his friend Mr. Tolby, whose pictures everybody was beginning to talk about. Tolby urged Vance to accept. “It’s one of the penalties of your profession; you must go and film the animals in their native habitat. I can sit still and wait till they come to be painted — but it’s your job to snap them at their games.”

Vance hardly needed urging. It was not so much the novelty of the scene that attracted him as its atmosphere. Being in England felt like coming back to something known in a happier state, and, as the hymn said, “lost awhile”. There was nothing like it in his conscious experience, yet it seemed nearer to him than his actual life. He discovered that the sense of security and solidarity emanating from the group of dowdy exiles at Oubli was the very air of England. Wherever he went it looked out of calm eyes and sounded in calm voices. Ah, those calm voices, their rich organ~tones, their still depths of sound! Vance never tired of them. Halo’s way of speaking, and that of her group, was a thin reminder of those rich notes; but how staccato and metallic compared with the brooding English intonations! “It’s the way your voices handle the words,” Vance explained, struggling for a definition. “The way a collector touches gems or ivories, not fussily or mincingly, but surely and softly. Or the way a girl in a poultry-yard picks up downy chickens.” Tolby laughed and said he liked the last analogy best.

The next day a voice with a different cadence broke in on his toil. “I’m Margot Crash,” it shrilled, and Vance found himself confronting a slender young lady with a face adorned by movie-star teeth and eyelashes. Miss Crash’s job, though brilliant, was probably less lucrative than if she had used her gifts on the screen: she represented in London the literary page of the Des Moines “Daily Ubiquity”. Vance started up to protest at the intrusion; but the teeth and eyelashes mollified him, and in another moment their owner, snugly ensconced in Tolby’s deepest armchair, was confessing that she was a beginner, and desperately in earnest about her job. “If I can get a good write-up off of you I’m made forever,” she declared; “but I’m so scared I guess you’ll have to do it for me. I’m too crazy about your novels to know how to talk about them to their author.”

“Oh, well,” said Vance, “the ones I’ve already written are still measurable by human instruments.”

She lifted her long lashes with a vague laugh. “Well, what I want is to find out all about them — how you write them, I mean, and how you began writing anyhow. What made you think of it? Did you take a course?”

“A course —?”

“Why, I mean at college. Or did the idea just come to you? Did you educate yourself to be a writer? Did you begin by studying your contemporaries? That’s the way they make you do in some courses.”

“No; I believe I began with Mother Goose.”

Her lovely stare widened; allusiveness was evidently as unintelligible to her as irony. “Oh, do you mean you started by writing children’s books?” She drew out a little note-book in which Vance could almost see her inscribing: “Began by writing for children.” “Like the Pollyannas, for instance?” she helped him out enthusiastically.

“Well — something.”

She clapped it down. “But what I want to know is — how did you learn to write for adults? Did you pick one of your contemporaries and work out your style on his, or did you take one of the longer courses — the ones that go way back to the classics?”

“It depends on what you call the classics.”

That puzzled her again, and provoked a lovely frown. “Well — Galsworthy, I suppose,” she triumphed.

“Oh, no; not as far back as that.” Her face fell, but she wrote on ardently till he signified to her, as humanely as possible, that there was really no more to tell, and that he must get back to his work.

“Oh — your WORK!” she breathed, in awed acquiescence; and then, putting out her hand: “You see, I’m trying to write novels myself, and it just means everything to me to find out from somebody up at the top what you have to do to get there. But I don’t believe I’ll ever have time to go way back to those old classics,” she sighed.

The next day the London edition of the Des Moines “Daily Ubiquity” brought out a heavily head-lined article on the celebrated young American novelist who was visiting London for the first time, and who had acquired mastery in his art by writing children’s stories and taking a college course in adult fiction. Well, why not?

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