"I'm sorry! I'm selfish. I'll do everything dad wished, cheerfully. You'll go abroad and educate yourself by travel, and I'll learn a profession. And some day I'll find out what I really am fitted to do, and then I'll go abroad and study, too."
"You'll be twenty, then, Steve – just the age to know what you really want to do."
She nodded, listlessly, kneeling there beside his chair, her cheek resting on her clasped hands, her grey eyes fixed on the dying coals.
After a long silence she said:
"Jim, I really don't know what I want to do in life. I am not certain that I want to do anything."
"What? Not the stage?"
"No – I'm not honestly sure. Everything interests me. I have a craving to see everything and learn about everything in the world. I want to know all there is to know; I'm feverishly curious. I want to see everything, experience everything, attempt everything! It's silly – it's crazy, of course. But there's a restless desire for the knowledge of experience in my heart that I can't explain. I love everything – not any one particular thing above another – but everything. To be great in any one thing would not satisfy me – it's a terrible thing to say, isn't it, Jim! – but if I were a great actress I should try to become a great singer, too; and then a great painter and sculptor and architect – "
"For Heaven's sake, Steve!"
"I tell you I want to know it all, be it all – see, do, live everything that is to be seen, done, and lived in the world – !"
She lifted her head and straightened her shoulders, sweeping the tumbled hair from her brow impatiently: and her brilliant grey eyes met his, unsmiling.
"Of course," she said, "this is rot I'm talking. But every hour of my life I'm going to try to learn something new about the wonderful world I live in – try something new and wonderful – live every minute to the full – experience everything… Do you think I'm a fool, Jim?"
"No, but you make me feel rather unambitious and commonplace, Steve. After all, I merely wish to write a few good novels. That would content me."
"Oh, Jim," she said, "you'll do it, and I'll probably amount to nothing. I'll just be a crazy creature flying about and poking my nose into everything, and stirring it up a little and then fluttering on to the next thing. Like the Bandar-log – that's what I am – just a monkey, enchanted and excited by everything inside my cage and determined to find out what is hidden under every straw."
"Yours is a good mind, Steve," he said, still smiling.
The girl looked up at him wistfully:
"Is it? I wish I knew. I'm going to try to find out. Have I really a good mind? Or is it just a restless one? Anyway, there's no use my trying to be an ordinary girl. I'm either monkey or genius; and I am convinced that the world was made for me to rummage in."
"Anyway," she said, "I've amused you and cheered you up.
Stephanie, looking very slim and young in her deep mourning, went back to college unreconciled and in tears. Jim drove her to the station. They stood together in the Pullman vestibule for a few minutes before the train departed, and she clung to him, both black-gloved hands holding tightly to his shoulders.
"Everything familiar in life seems to be ending," she said tremulously. "I'm not very old yet, and I didn't really wish to begin living seriously so soon – no matter what nonsense I talked about self-expression. All I want now is to get off this train and go back home with you."
"Poor little Steve," he said under his breath. "But it's better for you to return to college. The house would be too sad for you. Go back to college and study hard and play basket ball and skate – "
"Oh, I will," she said desolately. "I'll see the wretched term through. I was merely telling you what I'd rather do – go home and just live there all alone with you."
"You'd become tired of it pretty soon, Steve. Don't you think so?"
They looked at each other intently for a moment, then an odd expression came into the girl's grey eyes:
"It's you who would tire of it, Jim," she said. "I'm not old enough to amuse you yet. I'm still only a child to you."
"What nonsense – !"
"No. You've been wonderful to me. But you are older. I've bored you sometimes."
He protested; but she shook her head.
"A girl knows," she said. "And a man can't make a comrade of a girl who has no experiences to swap with him, no conclusions to draw, none of life's discoveries to compare with his… Don't look so guilty and distressed; you have always been a perfect dear. But, oh, if you knew how hard I've tried to catch up with you! – how desperately I try to be old enough for you – "
"Steve, you are an ideal sister! But you know how it is – when a man has such a lot to think about – "
"I do know! And that is exactly what I also am determined to have – a lot to think about!" Her colour was high and her grey eyes brilliant.
"In two years you shall see. I shall be an interesting woman to you when you come back! I vow and declare I shall be interesting enough to be friends with you on equal terms! Wait and see!"
"But, Steve," he protested, smiling, yet bewildered by the sudden fiery animation of the girl, "I never supposed you felt that I condescended – patronized – "
"How could you help it! – a little fool who doesn't know anything!" She was laughing unnaturally, and her nervous fingers tightened and relaxed on his shoulders. "But when you come back after two years' travel, I shall at least be able to take your temperature, and keep you entertained if you're ill – ! Oh, Jim, I don't know what I'm saying! I'm just heart-broken at going away from you. You do care a lot for me, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
"And I promise to be a very interesting woman when you come back from abroad… Oh, dear, the train is moving. Good-bye, Jim dear!" She flung her veil aside and put both slim arms around his neck in a passion of adoration and farewell.
He dropped to the platform from the slowly moving train and walked back toward the station. And he was uneasily conscious, for the first time in his life, of the innocent abandon of this young girl's embrace – embarrassed by the softness of her mouth – impatient of himself for noticing it.
When he arrived at the house Miss Quest's luggage had gone and that capable and determined lady was ready to depart for Bayport in a large, powerful automobile bearing her monogram, which stood in front of the house.
"Mr. Cleland," she said, "before I go, I have several things to say to you. One is that I like you."
He reddened with surprise, but expressed his appreciation pleasantly and without embarrassment.
"Yes," continued Miss Quest, reflectively, "you're much like your father. He and I began our acquaintance by differing: we ended friends. I hope his son and I may continue that friendship."
"I hope so," he said politely.
"Thank you. But the keynote to friendship is frankness. Shall I sound it?"
"Certainly," he replied, smiling.
"Very well: my niece ought to have a woman companion when she returns from college at Easter."
"Why?" he asked, astonished.
"Because she isn't your sister, and she's an attractive girl."
After a silence she went on:
"I know that you and Stephanie regard each other as brother and sister. But you're not. And the world knows it. It's an absurd world, Mr. Cleland."
"It's rather a rotten world if Steve and I can't live here alone together without gossip," he said hotly.
"Let's take it as we find it and be practical. Shall I look up a companion for Stephanie, or shall I return here at Easter?"
He pondered the suggestion, frowning. Miss Quest said pleasantly:
"Please, I don't mean to interfere. You are of age, and over. But the world, if it cares to think, will remember that you and Stephanie are not related. In two years, when you return from Europe, Stephanie will be twenty and you twenty-four. And, laying aside the suggestion that an older woman's presence might be advantageous under the circumstances, who is going to control Stephanie?"
"Yes, control, guide, steady her through the most critical period of her life?"
The young fellow, plainly unconvinced, looked at Miss Quest out of troubled eyes.
"Come," she said briskly, "let's have a heart-to-heart talk and find out what's ahead of us. Let's be business-like and candid. Shall we?"
"By all means."
"Then we'll begin at the very beginning:
"Stephanie is a dear. But she's very young. And at twenty she will still be very, very young. What traits and talents she may have inherited from a clever, unprincipled father – my own nephew, Mr. Cleland – I don't know. God willing, there's nothing of him in her – no tendencies toward irregularities; no unmoral inclination to drift, nothing spineless and irresponsible.
"As for Stephanie's mother, I know little about her. I think she was merely a healthy young animal without education, submitting to and following instinctively the first man who attracted her. Which happened to be my unhappy nephew."
She shook her head and gazed musingly at the window where the sunshine fell.
"There are the propositions; this is the problem, Mr. Cleland. Now, let us look at the conditions which bear directly on it. Am I boring you?"
"No," he said. "It's very necessary to consider this matter. I'm just beginning to realize that I'm really not fitted to guide and control Stephanie."
"What a confession! But do you know that, all over the world, men are beginning to come to similar conclusions? Conditions absolutely without precedent have arisen within a few brief years. And Stephanie, just emerging into womanhood, is about to face them. The day of the woman has dawned.
"Ours is a restless sex," continued Miss Quest grimly. "And this is the age of our opportunity. I don't know just what it is that animates my enfranchised sex, now that the world has suddenly flung open doors which have confined us through immemorial ages – each woman to her own narrow cell, privileged only to watch freedom through iron bars.
"But there runs a vast restlessness throughout the world; in every woman's heart the seeds of revolution, so long dormant, are germinating. The time has come when she is to have her fling. And she knows it!"
She shrugged her trim shoulders:
"It is the history of all enfranchisement that license and excess are often misconstrued as freedom by liberated prisoners. To find ourselves free to follow the urge of aspiration may unbalance some of us. Small wonder, too."
She sprang to her feet and began to march up and down in front of the fireplace, swinging her reticule trimmed with Krupp steel. Cleland rose, too.
"What was all wrong in our Victorian mothers' days is all right now," she said, smilingly. "We're going to get the vote; that's a detail already discounted. And we've already got about everything else except the right to say how many children we shall bring into the world. That will surely come, too; that, and the single standard of morality for both sexes. Both are bound to come. And then," she smiled again brightly at Cleland, "I have an idea that we shall quiet down and outgrow our restlessness. But I don't know."
"What you say is very interesting," murmured the young fellow.
"Yes, it's interesting. It is significant, too. So is the problem of making something out of defectives. After a while there won't be any defectives when we begin to breed children as carefully as we breed cattle. Sex equality will hasten sensible discussion; discussion will result in laws. A, B and C may have babies; D, E and F may not. And, after a few generations, the entire feminine alphabet can have and may have babies. And if, here and there, a baby is not wanted, there'll be no sniveling sectarian conference to threaten the wrath of Mumbo-Jumbo!"
Miss Quest halted in her hearth-rug promenade:
"The doom of hypocrisy, sham and intolerance is already in sight. Hands off and mind your business are written on the wall. So I suppose Stephanie will think we ought to keep our hands off her and mind our business if she wishes to go on the stage or dawdle before an easel in a Washington Mews studio some day."
Her logic made Cleland anxious again.
"The trouble lies in this intoxicating perfume we call liberty. We women sniff it afar, and it makes us restless and excitable. It's a heady odour. Only a level mind can enjoy it with discretion. Otherwise, it incites to excess. That's all. We're simply not yet used to liberty. And that is what concerns me about Stephanie – with her youth, and her intelligence, her undoubted gifts and – her possible inheritance from a fascinating rascal of a father.
"Well, that is the girl; there are the conditions; this is the problem… And now I must be going."
She held out her smartly gloved hand; retained his for a moment:
"You won't sail before Stephanie's Easter vacation?"
"No; I'll probably sail about May first."
"In that case, I'll come on from Bayport, and you won't need to find a companion for Stephanie. After you sail, she'll come to me, anyway."
"For hospital training," he nodded.
"For two years of it. It's her choice."
"Yes, I know. She prefers it to college."
Miss Quest said very seriously:
"For a girl like Stephanie, it will be an excellent thing. It will give her a certain steadiness, a foundation in life, to have a profession on which she may rely in case of adversity. To care for and to be responsible for others develops character. She already seems interested."
"She prefers it to graduating from Vassar."
Miss Quest nodded, then looking him directly in the eyes:
"I want to say one thing. May I?"
"Then, above all, be patient with Stephanie. Will you?"
"Of course!" he replied, surprised.
"I am looking rather far into the future," continued Miss Quest. "You will change vastly in two years. She will, too. Cherish the nice friendship between you. A man's besetting sin is impatience of women. Try to avoid it. Be patient, even when you differ with her. She's going to be a handful – I may as well be frank. I can see that – see it plainly. She's going to be a handful for me – and you must always try to keep her affections.
"It's the only way to influence any woman. I know my sex. You're a typical man, entirely dependent on logic and reason – or think you are. All men think they are. But logic and reason are of no use in dealing with us unless you have our affections, too. Good-bye. I do like you. I'll come again at Easter."
Alone in the quiet house, with his memories for companions, the young fellow tried to face the future; – tried to learn to endure the staggering blow which his father's death had dealt him, – strove resolutely to shake off the stunned indifference, the apathy through which he seemed to see the world as through a fog.
Gradually, as the black winter months passed, and as he took up his work again and pegged away at it, the inevitable necessity for distraction developed, until at last the deadly stillness of the house became unendurable, driving him out once more into the world of living men.
So the winter days dragged, and the young fellow faced them alone in the sad, familiar places where, but yesterday, he had moved and talked with his only and best beloved.
Perhaps it was easier that way. He had his memories to himself, sharing none. But he did not share his sorrow, either. And that is a thing that undermines.
At first he was afraid that it would be even harder for him when Stephanie returned at Easter. The girl arrived in her heavy mourning, and he met her at the station, as his father used to meet him.
She lifted her rather pale face and passively received her kiss, but held tightly to his arm as they turned away together through the hurrying crowds of strangers.
Each one tried very hard to find something cheerful to talk about; but little by little their narratives concerning the intervening days of absence became spiritless and perfunctory.
The car swung into the familiar street and drew up before the house; Stephanie laid one hand on Jim's arm, stepped out to the sidewalk, and ran up the steps, animated for a moment with the natural eagerness for home. But when old Meacham silently opened the door and her gaze met his:
"Oh – Meacham," she faltered, and her grey eyes filled.
However, she felt her obligations toward Jim; and they both made the effort, at dinner, and afterward in the library, fighting to keep up appearances.
But silence, lurking near, crept in upon them, a living intruder whose steady pressure gradually prevailed, leaving them pondering there under the subdued lamplight, motionless in the depths of their respective armchairs, until endurance seemed no longer possible – and speech no longer a refuge from the ghosts of what-had-been. And the girl, in her black gown, rose, came silently over to his chair, seated herself on the arm, and laid her pale face against his. He put one arm around her, meaning to let her weep there; but withdrew it suddenly, and released himself almost roughly with a confused sense of her delicate fragrance clinging to him too closely.
The movement was nervous and involuntary; he shot a perplexed glance at her, still uneasily conscious of the warmth and subtle sweetness which had so suddenly made of this slender girl in black something unfamiliar to his sight and touch.
"Let's try to be cheerful," he muttered, scarcely understanding what he said.
It was the first time he had ever repulsed her or failed to respond to her in their mutual loneliness. And why he did it he himself did not understand.
He left the arm-chair and went and stood by the mantel, resting one elbow on it and looking down into the coals; she slipped into the depths of the chair and lay there looking at him.
For something in the manner of this man toward her had set her thinking; and she lay there in silence, watching his averted face, deeply intent on her own thoughts, coming to no conclusions.
Yet somehow the girl was aware that, in that brief moment of their grief when she had sought comfort in his brotherly caress and he had offered it, then suddenly repulsed her, a profound line of cleavage had opened between him and her; and that the cleft could never be closed.
Neither seemed to be aware that anything had happened. The girl remained silent and thoughtful; and he became talkative after a while, telling her of his plans for travel, and that he had arranged for keeping open the house in case she and Miss Quest wished to spend any time in town.
"I'll write you from time to time and keep you informed of my movements," he said. "Two years pass quickly. By the time I'm back I'll have a profession and so will you."
"Then," he went on, "I suppose Miss Quest had better come here and live with us."
"I'm not coming back here."
"I'm going about by myself – as you are going – to to observe and learn."
"You wish to be foot-free?"
"I do. I shall be my own mistress."
"Of course," he said drily, "nobody can stop you."
"Why should anybody wish to? I shall be twenty-one – nearly; I shall have a profession if I choose to practise it; I shall have my income – and all the world before me to investigate."
"And then what?"
"How do I know, Jim? A girl ought to have her chance. She ought to have her fling, too, if she wants it – just as much as any man. It's the only way she can learn anything. And I've concluded," she added, looking curiously at him, "that it's the only way she can ever become really interesting to a man."
"How?" he demanded. "By having what you call her fling?"
"Yes. Men aren't much interested in girls who know nothing except what men permit them to know. A girl at college said that the one certain source of interest to any man in any woman is his unsatisfied curiosity concerning her. Satisfy it, and he loses interest."
"That's college philosophy," he said.
"It is what a man doesn't know about a woman that keeps his interest in her stimulated. It isn't her mind which is merely stored with the conventional – the conventional being determined and prescribed by men. It isn't even her character or her traits or her looks which can keep his interest unflagging. What deeply interests a man is an educated, cultivated girl who has had as much experience as he has, and who is likely to have further experience in the world without advice from him or asking his permission. No other woman can hold the interest of a man for very long."
"That's what you've learned at Vassar, is it?"
"It's one of the things," said Stephanie, smiling faintly.