The boy – for as yet he was only a boy – sailed in May. The girl – who was swiftly stripping from her the last rainbow chiffons of girlhood – was at the steamer to see him off – down from Poughkeepsie for that purpose.
And the instant she arrived he noticed what this last brief absence had done for her; how subtly her maturing self-confidence had altered the situation, placing her on a new footing with himself.
There was a little of the lean, long-legged, sweet-faced girl left: a slender yet rounded symmetry had replaced obvious joints and bones.
"What is it – basket ball?" he inquired admiringly.
"You like my figure?" she inquired guilelessly. "Oh, I've grown up within a month. It's just what was coming to me."
"Nice line of slang they give you up there," he said, laughing. "You're nearly as tall as I am, too. I don't know you, little sister."
"You never did, little brother. You'll be sorry some day that you wasted all the school-girl adoration I lavished on you."
"Don't you intend to lavish any more?" he inquired, laughing, yet very keenly alert to her smiling assurance, which was at the same time humourous, provocative and engaging.
"I don't know. I'm over my girlhood illusions. Men are horrid pigs, mostly. It's a very horrid thing you're doing to me right now," she said, " – going off to have a wonderful time by yourself for the next two years and leaving me to work in a children's hospital! But I mean to make you pay for it. Wait and see."
"If you'll come to Europe with me I'll take you," he said.
"You wouldn't. You'd hate it. You want to be free to prowl. So do I, and I mean to some day."
"Why not come now and prowl with me? I'll take care of you."
The girl looked at him with smiling intentness:
"If dad hadn't expressed his wishes, and even if my aunt would let me go, I wouldn't – now."
"Because I shall do no more tagging after you."
"No. And when you return I mean that you shall come and ask my permission to prowl with me… And if I find you interesting enough I'll let you. Otherwise, I shall prowl by myself or with some other man."
He was laughing, and her face, also, wore a bright and slightly malicious smile.
"You don't believe that's possible, do you, Jim? – a total reversal of our r?les? You think little sister will tag gratefully after you always, don't you? Wouldn't it astonish you if little sister grew up into a desirable and ornamental woman of independent proclivities and tastes, and with a mind and a will of her own? And, to enjoy her company, you'd have to seek her and prove yourself sufficiently interesting; and that you would have to respect her freedom and individuality as you would any man's!"
"I think, little sister," he said, laughing, "that you've absorbed a vast deal of modern nonsense at Vassar; that you're as pretty as a peach; and that you'll not turn into a maid errant, but will become an ornament to your sex and to society, and that you'll marry in due time and do yourself proud."
"In children, you mean? Numerically?"
"Quantitatively and qualitatively.
"That's what you think, is it?"
"I know it."
"Watch the women of my generation, Jim – when you can spare a few moments of your valuable time from writing masterpieces of fiction."
"I certainly shall. I'll study 'em. They're material for me. They are funny, you know."
"They are, indeed," she said, her grey eyes full of malice, "funnier than you dream of! You are going to see a generation that will endure no man-devised restrictions, submit to no tyrannical trammels, endure no masculine nonsense. You'll see this new species of woman coming faster and faster, thicker and thicker, each one knowing her own mind or intent on knowing it. You'll see them animated by a thousand new interests, pursuing a thousand new vocations, scornful of masculine criticism, impervious to admonition, regardless of what men think and say and do about it.
"That's what you'll see, Jim, a restless sex destroying their last barriers; a world of women contemptuous of men's opinions, convinced of their own rights, going after whatever they want, and doing it in their own way.
"If they wish to marry and bother with children they'll pick out a healthy man and do it; if not, they won't. Love plays a very, very small part in a man's life. Love, sentiment, domesticity, and the nursery were once supposed to make up a woman's entire existence. Now the time is coming very swiftly when love will play no more of a r?le in a woman's life than it does in a man's. She'll have her fling, first, if she chooses, just as freely as he does. And some day, if she finds it worth the inconvenience, she'll marry and take a year or two off and raise a few babies. Otherwise, decidedly not!"
"These are fine sentiments!" he exclaimed, laughing, yet not too genuinely amused. "I'm not sure that I'd better go and leave you here with that exceedingly pretty little head of yours stuffed and seething with this sort of propaganda!"
"You might as well. The whole world is beginning to seethe with it. After all, what does it mean except equality of the sexes? Hands off – that's all it means."
"Are you a suffragette, Steve?" he inquired, smilingly.
"Oh, Jim, that's old stuff! Everybody is. All that is merely a matter of time, now. What interests us is our realization of our own individual independence. Why, I can't tell you what a delightful knowledge it is to understand that we can do jolly well what we please and not care a snap of our fingers for masculine opinion!"
"That's a fine creed," he remarked. "What a charming bunch you must be training with at Vassar! I think I'll get off this steamer and remain here for a little scientific observation of your development and conduct."
"No use," she said gaily. "I've promised to learn to be a hospital nurse. After that, perhaps, if you return, you'll find me really worth observing."
"Is that a threat, Steve?" he asked, not too sincerely amused, yet still taking her and her chatter with a lightness and amiable condescension entirely masculine.
"Yes. Do you mean that when I return I shall find my little sister a handful?"
"A handful? For whose hand? Jim, dear, you are old-fashioned. Girls aren't on or in anybody's hands any more after they're of age. Do you think you'll be responsible for me? Dear child, we'll be comrades or nothing at all to each other. You really must grow up, little brother, before you come back, or I'm afraid – much as I love you – I might find you just a little bit prosy – "
The call for all ashore silenced her. She stood confronting Cleland with high colour and pretty, excited grey eyes, for a moment more, then the gay defiance faded in her face and her attitude grew less resolute.
"Oh, Jim!" she said under her breath, " – I adore you – " And melted into his embrace.
As he held her in his arms, for a moment the instinct to repel her and disengage himself came over him swiftly. A troubled idea that her lips were very soft – that he scarcely knew this girl whose supple figure he held embraced, left him mute, confused.
"Dear Jim," she whimpered, "I love you dearly. I shall miss you dreadfully. I'll always be your own little sister Steve, and you can come back and bully me and I'll tag after you and adore you. Oh, Jim – Jim – my own brother – my own – my own– !"
It was a bright, sunny, windy May day. He could still distinguish her in her black gown on the crowded pier which was all a-flutter with brilliant gowns and white handkerchiefs.
After the distant pier had become only a square of colour like a flower-bed, he still stood on the hurricane deck of the huge liner looking back at where he had last seen her. The fragrance of her still clung to him – seemed to have been inhaled somehow and to have subtly permeated him – something of the warm, fresh, pliant youth of her – unspoiled, utterly unawakened to anything more delicate or complex than the frank, vigorous passion of her affection.
Yet, as her breathless, tearful lips had clung to his, so the perfume of the embrace clung to him still, leaving him perplexed, vaguely disturbed, yet intensely conscious of new emotion, unfamiliar in his experience with this girl who yesterday had been what she always had been to him – a growing child to be affectionately looked after and chivalrously cherished and endured.
"I couldn't be in love with Steve," he said to himself incredulously. The thought amazed and exasperated him. "I'm a fine sort of man," he thought bitterly, "if I can't kiss Steve as innocently as she kisses me. There's something wrong with me. I must be a sort of dog – or crazy – "
He went below.
Stephanie went back in the car, alone. She staunched her tears with her black-edged handkerchief until they ceased to fill the wonderful grey eyes.
Later, detaching the limousine hand-mirror, she inspected her countenance, patted her chestnut-tinted hair, smoothed out her mourning veil, and then, in order, lay back in the corner of the car and gave herself up to passionate memory of this boy whom she had adored from the first moment she ever laid eyes on him.
Two years' absence? She tried to figure to herself what that meant, but could not compass it. It seemed like a century of penance to be endured, to be lived through somehow.
She wanted him dreadfully already. She had no pride left, no purpose, no threats. She just wanted to tag after him – knowing perfectly well that there could be no real equality of comradeship where youth and inexperience fettered her. She didn't care; she wanted him.
No deeper sentiment, nothing less healthy and frank than her youthful adoration for him, disturbed her sorrow. The consanguinity might have been actual as far as her affections had ever been concerned with him.
That she had, at various intervals, made of him a romantic figure, altered nothing. Stainlessly her heart enshrined him; he was her ideal, hers; her brother, her idol, her paladin – the incarnation of all that was desirable and admirable in a boy, a youth, a young man. Never in all her life had any youth interested her otherwise – save, perhaps, once – that time she had met Oswald Grismer after many years, and had danced with him – and was conscious of his admiration. That was the only time in her life when her attitude toward any man had been not quite clear – not entirety definable. She wrote many pages to Cleland that night. And cried herself to sleep.
The next day her aunt came up from Bayport. And, a week later, she went away to Bayport with Miss Quest to begin what seemed to her an endless penance of two years' hospital training.
The uniform was pink with white cuffs, apron, and cap. She never forgot the first blood that soiled it – from a double mastoid operation on a little waif of twelve who had never been able to count more than six. She held sponges, horrified, crushing back the terror that widened her grey eyes, steeling herself to look, summoning every atom of strength and resolution and nerve to see her through.
They found her lying across the corridor in a dead faint.
The usual happened to James Cleland; for the first two months in Paris he was intensely lonely. Life in an English-speaking pension near the Place de l'Etoile turned out to be very drab and eventless after he returned to his rooms, fatigued from sight-seeing and exploration. The vast silver-grey city seemed to him cold, monotonously impressive and oppressive; he was not in sympathy with it, being totally unaccustomed to the splendour of a municipal ensemble with all its beauty of reticence and good taste. The vast vistas, the subdued loveliness of detail, the stately tranquillity of this capital, he did not understand after the sham, the ignorance, the noisy vulgarity of his native municipality.
Here were new standards; the grey immensity of the splendid capital gave him, at first, an impression of something flat and almost featureless under the horizon-wide sweep of sky. There were no sky-scrapers. With exquisite discretion, Notre Dame dominated the east, the silvery majesty of the Pantheon the south; in the west the golden bubble of the Invalides burned; the frail tracery of the Eiffel Tower soared from the city's centre.
And for the first two months he was an alien here, depressed, silenced, not comprehending, oblivious of the subtle atmosphere of civil friendliness possessing the throngs which flowed by him on either hand, unaware that he stood upon the kindly hearthstone of the world itself, where the hospitable warmth never grew colder, where the generous glow was for all.
He went to lectures at the Sorbonne; he attended a class in philology in the Rue des Ecoles; he studied in the quiet alcoves of the great Library of Ste. Genevieve; he paced the sonorous marble pavements of the Louvre. And the austere statues seemed to chill him to the soul.
All was alien to him, all foreign; the English-speaking landlady of his pension, with her eternal cold in the head and her little shoulder shawl; the dreary American families from the Middle West who gathered thrice a day at the pension table; passing wayfarers he saw from the windows; red-legged soldiers in badly fitting uniforms, priests in shovel hats and black soutanes, policemen slouching by under cowled cloaks, their bayonets dangling; hatless, chattering shop girls, and the uninteresting types of civilian citizens; men in impossible hats and oddly awful clothes; women who all looked smart from the rear and dubious from the front.
He found an annoying monotony in the trees of the Bois, a tiresome sameness in square and circle and park and boulevard. He found the language difficult to understand, more difficult to speak. Food, accommodations, the domestic r?gime, were not to his liking. French economies bored him.
At lectures his comrades seemed merely superficially polite and not very desirable as acquaintances. He felt himself out of place, astray from familiar things, out of touch with this civilization, out of sympathy with place and people. He was intensely lonely.
In the beginning he wrote to Stephanie every other day. That burst of activity lasted about two months.
Also, in his rather dingy and cheerless suite of rooms, he began a tragedy in five acts and a pessimistic novel called "Out of the Depths." Also, he was guilty of a book of poems called "Day Dreams."
He missed his father terribly; he missed his home; he missed the noisy, grotesque, half-civilized and monstrous city of his nativity. And he missed Stephanie violently.
He told her so in every letter. The more letters he wrote the warmer grew this abrupt affection for her. And, his being a creative talent, with all its temperamental impulses, exaggerations and drawbacks, he began to evolve, unconsciously, out of Stephanie Quest a girl based on the real girl he knew, only transcendentally endowed with every desirable and ornamental quality abstractly favoured by himself.
He began to create an ideal Stephanie to comfort him in his loneliness; he created, too, a mutual situation and a sentimental atmosphere for them both, neither of which had existed when he left America.
But now, in his letters, more and more this romantic and airy fabric took shape. Being young, and for the first time in his life thrown upon his own resources – and, moreover, feeling for the first time the pleasures of wielding an eloquent, delicate and capricious pen to voice indefinable aspirations, he began to lose himself in romantic subtleties, evoking drama out of nothing, developing it by implication and constructing it with pensive and capricious humour hinting of dreamy melancholy.
Until the Stephanie Quest of his imagination had become to him the fair, and exquisitely indifferent little renaissance figure of his fancy; and he, somehow or other, her victim. And the more exquisite and indifferent he created her, the more she fascinated him, until he completely hypnotized himself with his own cleverly finished product.
A letter from her woke him up more or less, jolting him in his trance so that the jingle and dissonance of the real world filled, for a moment, his enchanted ears.
Your letters perplex me more and more, and I don't know at all how to take them. Do you mean you are in love with me? I can't believe it. I read and re-read your last three letters – such dear, odd, whimsical letters! – so wonderfully written, so full of beauty and of poetry.
They do almost sound like love-letters – or at least as I imagine love-letters are written. But they can't be! Howcan they be?
And first of all, even if you meant them that way, I don't know what to think. I've never been in love. I know how I feel about you – have always felt. You know, too.
But you never gave me any reason to think – and I never dreamed of thinking anything like that when you were here. It never occurred to me. It would not occur to me now except for your very beautiful letters – so unlike you – so strangely sad, so whimsical, so skillful in wonderful phrases that they're like those vague prose poems you sent me, which hint enough to awaken your imagination and set you aflame with curiosity.
But you can't mean that you're in love with me. I should be too astonished. Besides, I shouldn't know what to do about it. It wouldn't seem real. I never have thought of you in such a way.
What makes a girl fall in love? Do you know? Could she fall in love with a man through his letters because they are so beautiful and sad and elusive, so full of charm and mystery? I'm in love with them. But, Jim, I don't know what to think about you. I'd have to see you again, first, anyway. You are such a dear boy! I can't seem to think of you that way. You know it's a different kind of love, ours. All I can think about it is the tremendous surprise – if it's true.
But I don't believe it is. You are lonely; you miss dad – miss me, perhaps. I think you do miss me, for the first time in your life. You see, I have rather a clear mind and memory, and I can't help remembering that when you were here you certainly could not have felt that way toward me; so how can you now? I did bore you sometimes.
Anyway, I adore you with all my heart, as you know. My affection hasn't changed one bit since I was a tiny girl and came into your room that day and saw you down on the floor unpacking your suit-case. I adored you instantly. I have not changed. Girls don't change.
Another letter from her some months later:
You're such a funny boy – just a boy, still, while in these six months I've overtaken and passed you in years. You won't believe it, but I have. Maturity has overtaken me. I am really a real woman.
Why are your letters vaguely reproachful? Have I done anything? Were you annoyed when I asked you whether you meant me to take them as love letters? You didn't write for a month after that. Did I scare you? You arefunny!
I do really think you are in love – not with me, Jim – not with any other particular girl – but just in love with love. Writers and artists and poets are inclined to that sort of thing, I fancy.
That's what worries me about myself; I am not inclined that way; I don't seem to be artistic enough in temperament to pay any attention to sentiment of that sort. I don't desire it; I don't miss it; it simply is not an item in the list of things that interest me. But of all things in the world, I do adore friendship.
I had an afternoon off from the hospital the other day – I'm still a probationer in a pink and white uniform, you know – and I went up to town and flew about the shops and lunched with a college friend, Helen Davis, at the Ritz and had a wonderful time.
And who do you suppose I ran into? Oswald Grismer! Jim, he certainly is the best-looking fellow – such red-gold hair, – such fascinating golden eyes and colouring.
We chatted most amiably and he took us to tea, and then – I suppose it wasn't conventional – but we went to his studio with him, Helen Davis and I.
He is the cleverest man! He has done a delightful fountain and several portrait busts, and a beautiful tomb for the Lidsey family, and his studies in wax and clay are wonderful!
He really seems very nice. And the life he leads is heavenly! Such a wonderful way to live – just a bed-room and the studio.
He's going to give a little tea for me next time I have an afternoon off, and I'm to meet a lot of delightful, unconventional people there – painters, writers, actors – people who have done things! – I'm sure it will be wonderful.
I have bought five pounds of plasticine and I'm going to model in it in my room every time I have a few moments to myself. But oh, it does smell abominably, and it ruins your finger nails.
After that, Oswald Grismer's name recurred frequently in her letters. Cleland recognized also the names of several old schoolmates of his as figuring at various unconventional ceremonies in Grismer's studio – Harry Belter, now a caricaturist on the New York Morning Star; Badger Spink, drawing for the illustrated papers; Clarence Verne, who painted pretty girls for the covers of popular magazines, and his one-time master, Phil Grayson, writer for the better-class periodicals.