The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton


Halo Tarrant, when she and Vance decided to come to Paris, had looked forward to the adventure with dread. Free love, she found, was not the simple experiment she had imagined. The coast of Bohemia might be pleasant to land on for a picnic, yet the interior of the country prove disappointing. She had fancied that in the tolerant air of her brother’s studio she would shake off this feeling. She knew it was not based on moral scruples (morally speaking the business was still a labyrinth to her) but on a sort of inherited dislike of being unclassified, and out of the social picture. The social picture, as understood in the Lorburn tradition, had never existed for Lorry; or so he had led his sister to suppose. It had probably never occurred to him to marry Miss Jane Meggs, or to Miss Meggs to expect or wish that he should. Almost all the young men of the group stood in the same unfettered relation to one or more young women; and the few married couples among them tried to excuse their inferior state by the show of a larger liberty.

Among such people, Halo told herself, she would certainly lose the last of her old prejudices. After the cramping hypocrisy of her life with Lewis Tarrant it would be refreshing to be among people who laughed at the idea that there could be any valid tie between young men and women except that of a passing attraction. But from the first she had felt herself an outsider in this world which was to set her free. She liked some of the people she met at her brother’s, she was amused and interested by nearly all of them, and she tried to cultivate a friendly tolerance toward the few she found least sympathetic. But she had dropped out of her own picture without yet fitting into this one. Just as she imagined herself to be growing happy and at home among those harum-scarum people with their hysterical good-nature and their verbal enormities, she became suddenly aware that her real self was still ruled by other ideas, and that her new companions all knew it. Beauty, order and reasonableness grew more and more dear to her in the noisy anarchy of Lorry’s circle, and the audacities she risked, instead of making her new friends feel that she was one of them, only caused them a vague embarrassment. She had wanted Bohemianism on her own terms, as a momentary contrast to convention; and finding its laws no less irksome that the others, she bore them less philosophically because she did not believe in them.

The delay about her divorce did not trouble her greatly. In that easy-going world such matters seemed irrelevant, and she smiled to think how bitterly she had resented Vance’s going without her to the party at Granada. Since then she had put away childish things, and whether she and Vance married, or remained as they were, seemed of no consequence compared to the one vital point: would he weary of her, or would she be able to hold him? Sometimes she thought that if they could be married before he grew tired, their marriage might consolidate the bond. But in Lorry’s world it would have occurred to no one that marriage was in itself more permanent than a casual love-affair; the new generation argued that it was easier to separate if you were married, since divorce formalities were easier than a sentimental break.

Nevertheless she clung to the thought of marriage; and soon after their arrival in Paris she wrote to ask her lawyer the reason of the delay, and to repeat that, if Tarrant would not let her divorce him, she hoped he would take proceedings against her at once. The answer was not what she had expected. The lawyer wrote that Tarrant no longer wished for a divorce. He not only refused to take proceedings, but declined on any terms to set Halo free. No reasons were given; but the lawyer was satisfied that, for the present, any appeal against this decision would only harden Tarrant’s resolve. He advised Halo to wait, in the hope that her husband’s mood might change; and her knowledge of Tarrant made her accept the advice.

From Frenside and her mother she learned soon afterward that Tarrant’s projected marriage with Mrs. Pulsifer was off, and she suspected that this wound to his vanity had been the cause of his sudden opposition.

This new obstacle was a blow to her; but she did not speak of it to Vance. She had resolved not to make any allusion to their marriage unless he raised the question; and since their talk at Granada, when he had asked her about the delay in her divorce, he seemed to have dismissed the matter from his mind. Probably it made no difference to him if they were married or not; perhaps, even, it was a relief to feel that the tie between them depended only on their pleasure. Whatever happened, she could not tell Vance about that letter. . .

There were moments when such questions weighed little in the balance of her daily joys; but these joys became more necessary because of what they had to replace. She had to love Vance more passionately, and to believe in his genius more fervently and continuously, because she had staked so much on her love and her faith. Vance as a lover still filled her life with radiance, and her tenderness grew with the sense of his eager longing to make her happy; but it was in the region of thought and imagination that she had dreamed of a lasting hold over him, and it was in this region that she found herself least wanted.

She did not begrudge the hours he spent with his new friends. Men with quick discerning minds, like Arthur Tolby and young Savignac, interested her as much as they did Vance, and she was proud of their appreciation of her lover. They would never have encouraged him, as Alders had, to repeat himself by writing an other novel like “Instead” — a “costume piece” which drew its chief effects from a tricky use of local colour. Savignac had told her privately what he thought of the book; it was ever so pretty — ever so clever — but what business had a man of Weston’s quality to be doing novels like ladies’ fancy-work, or an expensive perfume? He ought to be tackling new difficulties, not warming up old successes. Yes; Halo knew it all; she did not need to have it pointed out, and there was a sting in the fact that this clever young man thought that her affections blinded her, or that her literary standards were less exacting than his. She had always known that Alder’s cheap enthusiasms were misleading Vance; but her hints had been wasted. And now, after an evening with his new friends, he could come back and say, quite unconsciously: “Of course I know ‘The Puritan’ is just pretty wall-paper — something pasted over the rough stuff of reality. Tolby called it that yesterday. Not an ounce of flesh~and-blood in it, not a breath of real air. Don’t I know? Why didn’t you have the nerve to tell me so? A fellow gets balled up in his subject, and doesn’t see which way he’s going. You might have told me that I was just re-writing ‘Instead’ in a new setting.”

A year ago she could hardly have refrained from saying: “But, darling, I did tell you, and you wouldn’t listen!” She was too wise for that now, and she merely replied: “I’m so glad you’ve had these talks with Savignac and Tolby. A fresh eye is always such a help — ”

“Oh, I oughtn’t to need any eye but my own,” Vance grumbled jealously: and she went away smiling to put on her newest hat for an out-of-door dinner in the Bois. “The next book — the next book,” she thought, “will show them all what he really is.” There were times when she caught herself praying for that next book as lonely wives pray for a child. . .

All this passed through her mind as she sat one afternoon in her brother’s studio, encumbered with half-finished stage-settings and models of famous theatres, and waited for him to come in. She envied Lorry the place he had made for himself in the busy experimental world of the arts. From an idle and troublesome youth he had turned into a hard-working man, absorbed in his task, confident of his powers, and preoccupied only by the eternal problem of getting money enough to execute his costly schemes. The last of these, she knew, was a great musical spectacle, to be expressed entirely in terms of modern industrialism, with racing motors, aeroplanes and sub-marines as the protagonists, prodigies of electric lighting, and stage effects of unprecedented complication. For the present there was little hope of carrying out this apocalyptic plan, and only the providential appearance of a rich American with a craving to be æsthetically up-to-date could make the dream come true. Lorry, deserting his impecunious friends of Montparnasse, had taken to haunting fashionable hotels and millionaire nightclubs; but hitherto his possible patrons had shied away from his scheme, and as Halo sat waiting she noticed that the stage-settings and models for “Factories,” which filled the working~table in the middle of the room, were already gray with dust.

Waiting for Lorry was always an uncertain affair, but Halo seldom had any engagements, and her unoccupied hours weighed on her less heavily away from home. If any one had told her, a year ago, that a young woman living with her lover in Paris could be lonely, and find the time long, she would have smiled at the idea as Vance did at her hints about his work; but now she had given up trying to conceal the truth from herself. Before long, perhaps, Vance would want to begin to write again, and then she would be happy; but meanwhile even love and Paris were not enough.

At last the door opened, and she heard Lorry’s step. Luckily he was alone, and they would be able to have a talk before the afternoon crowd turned up. He came in whistling a negro spiritual, said: “Hullo, child — you there?” and walked with an absent eye toward the model of the last scene of “Factories”. He stood before it for a long time, passing from spirituals to the latest Revue catch, and screwing up his eyes in meditation. As his sister watched him she thought how changed he was since he had found the job he was meant for. He would always be unreliable about money, careless as to other people’s feelings, sweetly frivolous, gaily unfeeling; but where his work was concerned he was a rock. He had found the right ballast for his flighty nature, and would no doubt have said that the rest didn’t matter. Halo looked at him with envy.

“Lorry,” she said, “can’t you find me a job?”

He swung around and scrutinized her with those handsome ironic eyes which were a shade too near together for security.

“A job? Why, I thought you had one! I thought you’d chucked everything else for it.”

She was on the point of answering, with a touch of bitterness: “I thought so too — ” but she checked herself.

“Don’t be a goose! What I want is some sort of occupation while Vance is working. I’ve never learnt to be lazy, and I feel at a loose end, with all the rest of you absorbed in your village industries. Why can’t I have one too? Won’t Jane take me on as an apprentice in her book-shop?”

Lorry Spear pulled his hands out of his pockets and ceased his whistling. “It’s you who are the goose, my dear,” he said. “When are you going to get married?”

She looked at him in surprise. It was the last question she had expected; but she rejoined with a laugh: “Is that your idea of an occupation?”

“For you, yes. A good deal more in your line than selling censored books in Jane’s back shop.”

Halo coloured a little. “I didn’t know you were so particular about either literature or morals.”

Lorry’s face took on an expression of irritated severity. “Hang it, I’m particular about everything — from my own point of view. I like things to be in the pattern. Old Jane’s in my pattern — so are her books. Naturally a man feels differently about his sister.”

Halo was silent, and he continued, in his light sharp voice: “I should have thought that as a mere matter of taste a woman like you wouldn’t want to be mixed up with the rabble that come here. It’s all right for a fugue — I’m all for a night off now and then; but I don’t suppose you’re going to settle down among them, as one of them, are you? Has it never occurred to you that it leaves a bad taste in a man’s mouth to have to introduce his sister to the kind of women who come here? ‘His sister? Who is she? Oh, just one of us’. You can’t hear them snicker; but I can. If I haven’t spoken till now it’s because I expected, any day, to hear that you and Weston were to be married.”

Halo sat looking at her brother with growing astonishment. He was aflame with one of the brief fits of self-righteousness which used to seize him when he tried to borrow money, or to justify some kind of doubtful transaction; but she wondered why he had chosen her as a pretext.

“Oh, no; of course not,” he pursued indignantly. “My feelings are the last thing you ever think of — how a man likes it when he knows the fellows he sees are saying behind his back: ‘His sister? Oh, anybody can have her the day her novelist chucks her.’ Look here, Halo, I’ve made myself a situation I’m proud of, and here you come along and behave as if you wanted to do me all the harm you can — as if you’d gone out of your way to offend our family pride and ridicule our traditions! Of course if Weston had any sense of what he owes you — ”

Halo interrupted him with a laugh. “Really, Lorry, I suppose I oughtn’t to let you go on. But all those obsolete words sound so funny in this atmosphere that I can’t take them seriously; and I don’t believe you expect me to. I don’t know that it’s any of your business to ask why I don’t marry Vance — it’s not a question I expected to hear under this roof. As a matter of fact, I suppose we shall marry when Lewis makes up his mind to let me have my divorce; but such matters seem so secondary to any one as blissfully happy as I am — ”

Her brother gave an ironic shrug. “YOU blissfully happy? Bless your heart — just go over and look at yourself in the glass! You’re better looking than ever, but your cheek-bones are coming through your skin and your eyes look as if you’d tried to rub out the circles under them with a dirty India rubber. And then you talk to me about being happy!”

Halo shrank at the challenge, but met it with a laugh. “I thought you liked ravaged beauties — I’ve been living on lemon juice and raw carrots on purpose. But if you want to see me led to the altar by my seducer you’d better persuade Lewis to let me divorce him, or to get a divorce from me, if he prefers. When he does, I daresay Vance and I will marry.”

Lorry stood before her in an attitude of contemplation; at last he said: “Look here, Halo — I hold no brief for Lewis, though he did me a good turn once. But if a man agrees to let his wife divorce him, I can understand his feeling that she might wait to join her lover till she’s got her decree.”

“No doubt the principle is a good one. But in my case only one thing counted. Vance wanted me; I had to go to him.”

Lorry gave an impatient shrug. “That’s so Ibsenish. Talk of obsolete words! Your whole vocabulary is made up of them. What was there to prevent your seeing your young friend on the quiet?” He laid a half-friendly, half-rebuking hand on her shoulder. “My poor old girl, when a lady’s such a lady, all the night-life and the adultery won’t wipe out the damned spot . . . I’m sorry; but you offend me æsthetically; you really do; and that’s the worst sin in my decalogue.”

“What a picture, Lorry! It would be funny if you turned out to be the most conventional member of our family.”

“I’m the most everything of our family, my dear; haven’t you found that out? I push things to their logical conclusions, while the rest of you live in a perpetual blur. That, I may add, is why I don’t marry and found a family.”

“And why you enjoin me to?”

“Certainly. It’s the safest way, for people who can’t see around the next corner. And you’re one of them.”

Halo sat staring down at the rough cement of the studio floor. She felt suddenly weary of the effort of bandying chaff with her brother. Weary of that, and of everything else. What he said had taken the strength out of her. It was not the first time that she had been struck by Lorry’s penetration. No one could see more clearly into human motives, or drive his argument home more forcibly when it was worth his while. For some reason which escaped her, it was worth his while now; but that did not arrest her attention, for her mind was riveted on the image of herself which his words evoked. She had no need to look in the glass; in his description her secret anxieties were revealed to her, feature by feature. It was true that she would never be at home among these people whose way of living was not the result of passion but of the mere quest for novelty. Contact with the clever mocking young women who, like herself, were living with their lovers, seemed to belittle her relation to Vance. When everything which was sacred to her in that relation would have appeared to them incomprehensible or ridiculous, how could she ever imagine herself one of them? She had always felt a latent repulsion for them: for the capable free-spoken Jane, with her thriving trade in forbidden books and obscene drawings, for her friend and business partner, Kate Brennan, whose conversation echoed and parodied Jane’s, and for all the other women of the group, with their artistic and literary jargon, picked up from the brilliant young men whose lives they shared, and their noisy ostentation of emotions they seldom felt, and sins they probably did not always commit. Halo stood up and looked about her, at the stacked-up stage-settings, the dusty electrical and photographic apparatuses, the hideous sub-human faces grimacing from futurist canvases, the huge plaster group of two women evilly contorting themselves against a background of theatrical posters. It had all seemed so free and jolly and clever — and Lorry’s words had crumbled the whole show to dust.

“Well, I’m off,” she said. “If Vance comes, tell him not to wait for me.”

Lorry seemed to feel a touch of compunction. “Oh, look here, old girl — ” he glanced at his watch a little nervously — “don’t go till I’ve built you up with a cocktail.”

She shook her head with a smile. “I’m beyond cocktails. It’s this stuffy weather — I feel so lifeless. I’m going home to lie down.”

She detected a tinge of relief in his eyes as he followed her toward the door. “So long, then, my dear. If Weston turns up I’ll send him back to smooth your pillow.” He laid his hand on hers. “See here, Halo; why don’t you go home — really?” His eyes looked into hers simply and kindly, as they used to when he and she were children. She pressed his hand and went out without answering.

The studio was at the back of an untidy walled enclosure, encumbered with the materials of an adjoining carpenter’s shop. As Halo emerged into the street a glittering motor drove up and stopped. The chauffeur, after a glance of doubt and disapproval, jumped down to open the door, and there descended a heavily built lady dressed with sober opulence. It was clearly unusual for her to set foot to the ground in such a quarter, for she looked as dubious and disapproving as the chauffeur. As she surveyed with lifted nose and eye-glass the unpromising front of the carpenter’s shop, the rifts in the pavement, and the general untidiness of the half built-up street, Halo thought: “New York — and Park Avenue!” An instant later she identified the lady. “Mrs. Glaisher! How fat she’s grown. They all do, when they own opera boxes and Rollses.” She remembered Mrs. Glaisher as one of the chief ornaments of the old expensive New York group which her parents had belonged to and broken away from. Mrs. Glaisher was a necessary evil. Once in the winter one had to hear Tristan or the Rosenkavalier from her opera box, and once to dine off gold plate in her Gothic refectory. But for the rest of the year she was the object of proverbial pleasantry among the clever people who met at Mrs. Spear’s. What on earth could she be doing here now? Why, probably looking for Lorry! The thought interested Halo, but did not surprise her; she knew that Mrs. Glaisher was always panting and puffing after what she called “the latest thing”. Perhaps she had just discovered Lorry; perhaps — very possibly — it was she on whom he was counting to finance the costly stage-setting of “Factories”. The idea was so amusing that Halo forgot her own troubles, and decided that she would guide Mrs. Glaisher to the studio for the pleasure of hearing what she and Lorry had to say to each other. Halo had a high idea of Lorry’s verbal arts, and he would need them all to bridge the distance between Mrs. Glaisher’s extremest mental effort and the most elementary explanation of “Factories”.

Mrs. Glaisher still wavered, as if seeking guidance. Simultaneously, the two women moved a few steps toward each other; then Mrs. Glaisher, pausing, appeared to absorb Halo’s presence into her eye-glasses, to turn it over and reject it. After one deadly glance of recognition she averted her gaze, and walked on as if there were no one in her path, and Halo, from the street, was left to contemplate her broad and disapproving back. She had been cut, distinctly and definitely cut, by Mrs. Glaisher.

The idea was so new that she burst into a laugh. She caught an expression of surprise on the chauffeur’s disdainful face, and then — could it be? — a fleeting but unconcealable grin. Mrs. Glaisher’s chauffeur was joining her in her laugh at Mrs. Glaisher.

“But it’s all New York that has cut me!” she chuckled to herself; for she knew that every act and attitude of Mrs. Glaisher’s was the outcome of a prolonged and conscientious study of what her particular world approved and disapproved of. The idea of being excluded, ruled out, literally thought out of existence, by all those towering sky-scrapers to whose shelter the statue of Liberty so falsely invites the proscribed and the persecuted, filled Halo with uncontrollable mirth, and she sped homeward cheerfully humming: “I’ve been cut by Mrs. Glaisher — Mrs. Glaisher — Mrs. Glaisher. . .”

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