Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book VI


“Under a waning moon the little fleet stood out from Pondicherry . . .”

Vance sat lost in his vision. The phrase had murmured in his brain all day. Pondicherry — where was it? He didn’t even know. Memories of the movies furnished the vague exoticism of the scene: clustered palms, arcaded houses, dusky women with baskets of tropical fruit. But lower than this surface picture, of which the cinema had robbed him, the true Pondicherry — HIS— hung before him like a mirage, remote, rare and undefiled. . . . Pondicherry! What a name! Its magic syllables concealed the subject of his new tale, as flower petals curve over the budding fruit. . . . He saw a harbour lit by a heavy red moon, the dusty cobblestones of the quay, a low blue-white house with a terrace over the water . . . .

“Vance WESTON— wake up, for the Lord’s sake! Don’t look as if you were trying to listen in at a gas pump . . . .”

He roused himself to the fact that he was in Rebecca Stram’s studio, perched on a shaky platform, and leaning sideways in the attitude the sculptress had imposed on him. . . . “I must have been asleep . . . .” he mumbled.

The studio was an attic, self-consciously naked and untidy. Somebody had started to paint maps of the four quarters of the globe on the bare walls, but had got bored after Africa, and the fourth quarter was replaced by a gigantic Cubist conundrum which looked like a railway junction after a collision between excursion trains but was cryptically labelled: “Tea and Toast for One.”

A large black stove stood out from one wall, and about it were gathered, that December afternoon, a group of young men as self~consciously shabby as the room. The only exception was Eric Rauch, whose dapperness of dress seemed proof against Bohemian influences, and who smoked cigarettes undauntedly among a scornful cluster of pipes. He, and everybody else, knew that he was there only on sufferance, because he was one of the New Hour fellows, and might come in useful any day, and because Vance Weston, the literary hero of the hour, belonged — worse luck! — to the New Hour. Eric Rauch, in spite of his little volume of esoteric poetry, was regarded as a Philistine by the group about Rebecca’s stove, the fellows who wrote for the newest literary reviews and the latest experimental theatres. But they knew it was all in the day’s work for Rebecca to portray the last successful novelist, and as poor Weston was owned by the New Hour, they had to suffer Rauch as his bear leader.

Above the stove they were discussing This Globe, Gratz Blemer’s new novel, and Vance, roused out of his dream of Pondicherry, indolently listened. At first these literary symposia had interested and stimulated him; he felt as if he could not get enough of the cryptic wisdom distilled by these young men. But after ten or fifteen sittings to Rebecca, about whose stove they were given to congregating, he had gone the round of their wisdom, and come back still hungry.

He knew exactly, beforehand, what they were going to say about This Globe, and was bewildered and discouraged because he did not see how they could possibly admire it as much as they professed to if they also admired Instead. And of that fact there could be no doubt. Instead had taken as much with the Cocoanut Tree crowd as with what they contemptuously called the parlour critics. It was one of those privileged books which somehow contrive to insinuate themselves between the barriers of coterie and category, and are as likely to be found in the hands of the commuter hurrying to his office as of the wild-haired young men in gaudy pullovers theorizing in the void about Rebecca’s stove.

Rebecca Stram, clothed to the chin in dirty linen, stepped back with screwed-up eyes, gave a dab at the clay, and sighed: “If you’d only fall in love with me I’d make a big thing out of this . . . .”

Vance heard her, but drew a mask of vacancy over his face. Love — falling in love! Were there any words in the language as hateful to him, or as void of meaning? His love, he thought, was like his art — something with a significance so different from the current one that when the word was spoken before him a door flew shut in his soul, closing him in with his own groping ardours. Love! Did he love Laura Lou — had he ever loved her? What other name could he give to the upwelling emotion which had flung him back in her arms when she had driven up to the door that day in Dixon’s carryall? It was over a year since then; and he did not yet understand why the passion which had shaken him that day to the roots of his being had not transformed and renewed both their lives. The mere thought that she was leaving him — and leaving him because he had unwittingly wounded, neglected her — had opened an abyss at his feet. That was what life would be to him without her: a dark pit into which he felt himself crashing headlong, like falling in an aeroplane at night. . . . It hadn’t taken five minutes to break up Mrs. Tracy’s plan, win back Laura Lou, and laugh away all the bogies bred of solitude and jealousy — poor child, she’d actually been jealous of him! And he had been young enough (a year ago) to imagine that one can refashion life in five minutes — remould it, as that man Fitzgerald said, nearer to the heart’s desire! . . . God — the vain longing of the soul of man for something different, when everything in human relations is so eternally alike, unchanging and unchangeable!

They had broken up at Paul’s Landing. Mrs. Tracy, embittered and resentful, had sold the house and gone to California with Upton. But Laura Lou had remained, reconciled, enraptured, and Vance had brought her to New York to live. . . . Could anything be more different, to all appearances? And yet, in a week, he had known that everything was going to be exactly the same — and that the centre and source of all the sameness were Laura Lou and her own little unchangeable self . . . .

“What you feel about Blemer’s book” (one of the fellows was haranguing between pipe-puffings) “is that it’s so gorgeously discontinuous, like life — ” (life discontinuous? Oh, God! Vance thought.) “Not a succession of scenes fitting into each other with the damned dead logic of a picture puzzle, but a drunken orgy of unrelatedness . . . .”

“Not like Fynes, eh?” (Vance thought: “Last year Tristram Fynes was their idol,” and shivered a little for his own future.) “Poor old Fynes,” another of them took it up; “sounded as if he’s struck a new note because he made his people talk in the vernacular. Nothing else new about HIM— might have worked up his method out of Zola. Probably did.”

“Zola — who’s he?” somebody yawned.

“Oh, I dunno. The French Thackeray, I guess.”

“See here, fellows, who’s read Thackeray, anyhow?”

“Nobody since Lytton Strachey, I guess.”

“Well, anyway, This Globe is one great big book. Eh, Vance, that the way you see it?”

Vance roused himself and looked at the speaker. “Not the way I see life. Life’s continuous.”

“Gee! I guess you’re confusing life with Rebecca. Let him get down and stretch his legs a minute, Becka, or he’ll be writing books like The Corner Grocery.”

Under shelter of the general laugh Vance shifted his position and lit a cigarette. “Oh, well — ” Rebecca Strain grumbled, laying down her modelling tool and taking a light from his match.

“Life continuous — continuous? Why, it’s a series of jumps in the dark. That’s Mendel’s law, anyhow,” another budding critic took up the argument.

“Gee! Who’s Mendel? Another new novelist?”

“Mendel? No. He’s the guy that invented the principle of economy of labour. That’s what Mendelism is, isn’t it?”

“Well, I’m shattered! Why, you morons, Mendel was the Victorian fellow that found out about Nature’s proceeding by jumps. He worked it out that she’s a regular kangaroo. Before that all the Darwins and people thought she planned things out beforehand, like a careful mother — or the plot of a Fynes novel.”

Fynes had become their recognized butt, and this was greeted by another laugh. Rebecca threw herself full length on the broken~springed divan, grumbling: “Well, it’s too dark to go on. When’ll you come back, Vance — tomorrow?”

Vance hesitated. Laura Lou was beginning to object to the number of sittings — beginning, he fancied, to suspect that they were a pretext; just as, under her mother’s persuasion, she had suspected that his work at the Willows was a pretext for meeting Mrs. Tarrant. Oh, hell — to give one big shake and be free! “Yes, tomorrow,” he rang out resolutely, as if Laura Lou could hear him, and resent his challenge. . . . When the sittings began he had begged her to accompany him to the studio. “When the Stram girl sees you she’ll do you and not me,” he had joked; and the glow of gratified vanity had flown to her cheeks. But she had gone with him, and nobody had noticed her — neither Rebecca nor any of the young men. The merely beautiful was not in demand in Rebecca’s crowd — was in fact hardly visible to them. Or rather, they had forced beauty into a new formula, into which Laura Lou’s obvious loveliness did not fit. And when she had murmured: “Why, you don’t SAY . . .” or: “See here, I guess you’re quizzing me,” her conversational moves were at an end, and she could only sit, lovely and unperceived, in a cloud of disappointment. She never went back to Rebecca’s.

Eric Rauch walked away with Vance, and as they reached the street Vance’s bruised soul spoke out. “Hearing those fellows talk I don’t see what they can find in my book.”

“Why, they have a good time reading it. They crack their teeth over their own conundrums, and now and then they just indulge in the luxury of lying back and reading a real book.”

“But they believed in Fynes last year.”

“Sure. And they believed in you till Gratz Blemer came along. What you’ve got to do now is to go Blemer one better — do your big New York novel in his style,” Rauch ended with a laugh, as their ways parted.

Vance was going home; but he felt within himself a dammed-up flood of talk, and as he reached Washington Square it occurred to him that Frenside lived nearby, and might sometimes be found at that hour. Vance did not often see Frenside nowadays. The latter seldom came to the New Hour, and Vance as seldom went to Mrs. Tarrant’s, where the old critic was most often to be met. Vance’s relation with the Tarrants had shrunk — by his own choice — to business intercourse with Tarrant at the office. Some native clumsiness had made it impossible for him, after he came to New York, to work out a manner, an attitude, toward Halo Tarrant. Other fellows knew how; took that sort of thing in their stride; but he couldn’t. The art of social transitions was still a mystery to him. He remembered once hearing his grandmother (rebuked by Mrs. Weston for bad management and extravagance) say plaintively: “Why, daughter, I presume I can go without — BUT I CAN’T ECONOMIZE.” Vance understood that: morally and materially, he had never known how to economize. But he could go without — at least he supposed he could . . . .

Halo, who had heard of their arrival in New York from her husband, had written a friendly little note to Laura Lou, asking her and Vance to lunch; and Laura Lou, after a visible struggle between her irrepressible jealousy and the determination to prove to Vance that she had never been jealous (how could he have thought so, darling?) — Laura Lou had decided that they must accept.

They did, and the result was disastrous. From the first moment everything had bewildered Laura Lou and roused her inarticulate resentment. She was used to Halo — didn’t care a straw what SHE thought of anybody or anything. . . . Hadn’t she seen her, for years, coming and going at the Willows? They were distant cousins too — Halo needn’t have reminded her of that in her note! But she had never seen Mrs. Tarrant in this setting of New York luxury and elegance; she had never met Tarrant, who at once struck her as heartless and sardonic; she had never seen people like the other guests, men young and elderly, all on a footing of intimacy with their hosts, and talking carelessly, allusively, easily, of people and things that Laura Lou had never heard of. . . . She did not confess a word of this to Vance; she did not have to. Her face was like a clear pool reflecting every change in a shifting sky. He could measure, partly from his own memories, partly from his knowledge of her, the impact of every allusion, every unexpected gesture or turn of phrase of the people about her. The mere way in which the lunch was served was something to marvel at and be resented — didn’t he know? (“Caviar? That what you call it — that nasty gray stuff that smelt like motor grease? No, I didn’t touch it . . . When I watched you eating it I thought you’d be sick, sure . . . .” and so on.) For the rest, she took the adventure as something completely matter-of-course and not worth discussing, and remained coldly surprised, faintly ironic, and indifferent. IS THAT ALL? her attitude seemed to say. But how well he knew what was under it!

Since then he had never been back to Mrs. Tarrant’s. What was the use? Not to see her at all was less of a privation seeing her like that. . . . She had sent him, a few days later, a note asking how the novel was getting on, and when he was coming to read the next chapters to her; and he had not answered. He did not know how to excuse himself from going to see her, and was resolved to avoid the torment of renewing their friendship. So the months passed, and they did not meet . . . .

He cared only for his work now, or so he told himself. It was his one refuge from material and moral conditions so stifling and embittering that but for that other world to escape to he would have borrowed a revolver and made an end. . . . But his work too was becoming a perplexity. By the time he had finished Instead forty subjects were storming at the gates of his imagination and clamouring for embodiment. But his first encounter with the perplexing contradictory theories of the different literary groups to which the success of his book introduced him, all the wild currents and whirlpools of critical opinion in New York, had shaken his faith in himself; not in his powers of exposition and expression, which seemed to grow more secure with every page he wrote, but in his choice of a theme, a point of view, what the politicians called a “platform.” It had never before occurred to him that the artist needed any, except that to which his invisible roots struck down, in the depths ruled by The Mothers; but these fellows with their dogmas and paradoxes, their contradictory pronouncements and condemnations, though all they said seemed so on the surface, excited his imagination and yet unsettled it. “What I need is a good talk with somebody outside of it all,” he thought, his mind instinctively turning to Halo Tarrant; but it turned from her again abruptly, and he concluded: “A talk with a man — much older, and with a bigger range. Somebody who’ll listen to me, anyhow — ” for that was what his contemporaries would never do.

He read “In” on the dingy card under Frenside’s doorbell, and ran upstairs to his door. Frenside, in a haze of pipe smoke, let him in, and Vance found himself in a small shabby room. A green-shaded lamp made a studious circle of light on a big table untidily stacked with books and reviews, and an old steamer chair with a rug on it was drawn up to a smouldering fire. Frenside looked surprised, and then said: “Glad you’ve come,” and signed to Vance to take the seat opposite him. “Well, how are you standing your success?” he enquired, settling down into his deck chair.

“Oh, I don’t think much about what’s done,” Vance answered. “It’s the thing ahead that bothers me.” He paused, and then asked: “Can I talk to you?” and the other pushed out his thorny eyebrows and answered: “Try.”

“Well — it’s this way. I’m not a bit like that fellow in the hymn. One step isn’t enough for me. And I can’t seem to see beyond; I’m in a fog that gets thicker and thicker.”

Frenside leaned back with half-closed lids and seemed to take counsel of his pipe. “Creative or doctrinal?”

Vance smiled. “Oh, chiefly doctrinal, I guess.”

“Well, that’s not mortal. Out with your symptoms.” And Vance began.

It was his first opportunity for a quiet talk with Frenside, and he saw at once that there was nothing to fear if one really had something to say to him. Vance had plenty to say; the difficulty was that he did not quite know where to begin. But before he had done floundering Frenside had taken the words out of his mouth and was formulating his problem for him, clearly, concisely. He did not harangue him, but put a series of questions and helped Vance to answer them, so that even when Frenside was talking Vance seemed to be listening to himself.

“Yes — it’s a bad time for a creator of any sort to be born, in this after-war welter, with its new recipe for immortality every morning. And I suppose, for one thing, you’re torn between the demands of your publishers, who want another Instead, and your own impulse, which is to do something quite different — outside it, beyond it, away from it. And when you add to that all the critics (I believe they call themselves) knocking down their own standards once a day, and building up others to suit their purblind necessities — God, yes, it’s a tough old vocation that will force its way through that yelping crowd, and I don’t wonder a youngster like you is dazed by it.”

Vance listened attentively. “I’m not dazed, though, not exactly. I said I couldn’t see around me and outside of me. But there’s a steady light somewhere inside of me . . . .”

“Yes, I believe there is,” Frenside nodded. He drew at his pipe, crossed one leg over another, and finally said: “I’d have given a gold mine to have that light, at your age.”

The blood rushed to Vance’s forehead. “Oh, but you — ”

“No, not that. But I’m straying from the subject: which is, plainly, what had you better do next?”

“Well, yes, that’s so.”

“And the obvious answer: ‘Follow your impulse,’ is no use when you have a hundred impulses tugging at you from the inside, and all that clatter of contradictory opinion from the outside, eh?” Frenside considered again. “The trouble with you is that you’re suffering from the self-distrust produced by success. Nothing is as disintegrating as success: one blurb on a book jacket can destroy a man’s soul more surely than the Quarterly killed Keats. And to young fellows like you, after you’ve made your first hit, the world is all one vast blurb. Well, you’ve got to stuff cotton in your ears and go ahead . . . .”

“Ahead, you say? But where? Well, Nature abhors a void, and to fill it she’s wasteful — wildly wasteful. In the abstract, my advice would be: follow her example. Be as wasteful as she is. Her darlings always are. Chase after one impulse and another; try your hand at this and that; let your masterpieces die off by the dozen without seeing the light . . . But what’s the use of such talk nowadays? Besides, you’ve got to earn your living, haven’t you? Well, that’s not a bad thing either. You don’t want to risk getting lost in the forest of dreams. It happens. And if you once went to sleep under the deadly Tree of Alternatives you might never wake up again. So — ” He paused, relit his pipe, and blinked at Vance meditatively.

“As far as I can see, one trouble is this. The thing you’ve just done (yes, I’ve read it; Halo made me) well, it’s a pretty thing, exquisite, in fact, and a surprise, a novelty nowadays, as its popularity has proved. But it’s a thing that leads nowhere. An evocation — an emanation — something you wrought with enchantments, eh? Well, now take hold of life as it lies around you; you remember Goethe: ‘Wherever you take hold of it, it’s interesting’? So it is — but only in proportion as YOU are. There’s the catch. The artist has got to feed his offspring out of his own tissue. Enrich that, day and night — perpetually. How? . . . Ah, my dear fellow, that’s the question! What does the tortoise stand on . . .?”

Vance sat silent. Perhaps his adviser was right. Perhaps the only really fruitful field for the artist was his own day, his own town or country, a field into which he could plunge both hands and pluck up his subjects with their live roots. Instead had charmed his readers by its difference — charmed them because they were unconsciously tired of incoherence and brutality; but the spell would soon break because, as Frenside said, his tale had been an “emanation,” not a reality. He had given very little of what Frenside called his “tissue” to its making. And now his thoughts reverted to Loot, the old theme which had haunted him since his first days in New York — it seemed a century ago — and his imagination instantly set to work on it.

“I suppose you go out a good deal these days — see a good many people? A novelist ought to, at one time or another,” Frenside continued. “Manners are your true material, after all.”

Vance hesitated. “I don’t go out much.” He could not add that Laura Lou made it impossible; but he said, with equal truth: “Fact is, I can’t afford it. I mean, the time — or the money either . . .”

“The money?” Frenside looked surprised. “Why, you ought to be raking in royalties by now. I don’t suppose you got much out of the New Hour for your serial? No, I thought not. The highbrow papers can’t pay. But the book; why it’s been out three or four months, hasn’t it? It was a good deal talked about while it was coming out in the review, and you ought to have had a handsome sum on the advance sales, and another instalment after three months. I understand that’s the regular arrangement for fiction — I wish it was for book-reviewing,” he added mournfully.

Vance was glad of the opening; but for Frenside’s question he would never have had the courage to mention his material difficulties, though it was partly with that object that he had called. But he felt the friendliness under the old man’s gruff interrogations, and his anxiety burst from him. No, he said, he’d had no such privileges. The publishers, Dreck and Saltzer, to whom Tarrant had bound him for three years for all book publication, had been visibly disappointed by Instead. They didn’t think the subject would take, and even if it did, they said the book was too short for big sales. There’s nothing a publisher so hates to handle as a book — especially a novel — that doesn’t fit into the regulation measures. Instead was only forty-five thousand words long, and Mr. Dreck told Vance he didn’t know a meaner length. He’d rather have an elephant to handle like Ulysses or American Tragedy, than a mouthful like that. When readers have paid their money they like to sit down to a square meal. An oyster cocktail won’t satisfy ’em. They want their money’s worth; and that’s at least a hundred thousand. And if you try charging ’em less, they say: “Hell, what’s wrong with the book for it to sell so cheap? Not an hour’s reading in it, most likely.” So Dreck and Saltzer had halved the percentage previously agreed on, on the plea that the book wasn’t a novel anyhow — nothing under ninety thousand is; and there had been no advance royalties, and there would be no payment at all till June. Of course, they said, if Vance had pulled off the Pulsifer Prize it would have been different. As it was, there was nothing in it for them, and they took the book only to oblige Tarrant.

Frenside listened attentively. When Vance had ended, he said: “From a business point of view I suppose they were right — before the book came out. But now? It’s had a big sale, or so they say in their advertisements; and they wouldn’t keep on advertising it if it hadn’t. Can’t you ask them to make you an advance, even if it’s not in the bond?”

Vance reddened as he said that he had asked and been turned down. The publishers claimed that they were advertising the book at a dead loss, that the sales hadn’t been much bigger than they had expected; but that they “believed” in Vance’s future, and were ready to risk some money on it — a pure speculation, they declared. So they really couldn’t do more.

Frenside gave a contemptuous wave of his pipe. “That’s what the small publishers call ‘business,’ and why they never get to be big ones. Pity you’re tied up to them. However — ” He paused, and Vance felt that he was being searchingly scrutinized from under those jutting brows. “And you’d be glad of a loan, I gather? Have you — put the matter before Tarrant?”

“Oh, no — I couldn’t,” Vance interrupted in a thick voice.

Frenside nodded, as if that were not wholly a surprise. “See here, young fellow, I believe you’ve got the stuff in you, and I’d like to help you. I’m never very flush myself; I daresay my appearance and my surroundings make that fairly obvious. But if a hundred would be any good — ”

He made a motion to pull himself up out of his chair; but Vance raised a hand to check him. A hundred dollars — any good? God . . . his mouth watered . . . But somehow he didn’t want to take the money; didn’t want their inspiriting talk to end in the awkwardness of pocketing a cheque; didn’t, above all, want to overshadow the possibility of future talks by an obligation he might be unable to meet. He must keep this spiritual sanctuary clear of the moneylenders’ booths.

“Thank you,” he stammered. “But no, honest, I couldn’t . . . I mean, I guess I can make out . . . .” He stood up, and looked Frenside in the eyes. “When I get the chance to talk to you I’d rather it was about my work. Nothing else matters, after all . . . .”

Frenside rose also. “Well, I’ve got to pack you off now and get into harness myself.” He pointed to the papers on his desk. “But come back when you can,” he added. “And wait a minute — let me give you a cocktail . . . I daresay you can operate the shaker better than I can. . . . Here’s to your next.”

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