The Restless Sex
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It's delightful, she wrote; we sometimes have music – often celebrated people from the Metropolitan Opera drop in and you meet everybody of consequence you ever heard of outside the Social Register – people famous in their professions – and it is exciting and inspiring and fills me with enthusiasm and desire to amount to something.
Of course there are all kinds, Jim; but I'm old enough and experienced enough to know how to take care of myself. Intellectuals are, of course, broad, liberal and impatient of petty conventions: they live for their professions, regardless of orthodox opinion, oblivious of narrow-minded Philistines.
The main idea is to be tolerant. That is the greatest thing in the world, tolerance. I may not care to smoke cigarettes myself or drink cocktails and highballs, but if another girl does it it's none of my business. That is the foundation of the unconventional and intellectual world – freedom and tolerance of other people's opinions and behaviour. That is democracy!
As for the futurists and symbolists of various schools, I am not narrow enough, I hope, to ridicule them or deny them the right to self-expression, but I am not in sympathy with them. However, it is most interesting to listen to their views.
Well, these delightful treats are rare events in my horridly busy life. I'm in the infirmary and the hospital almost all the time; I'm always on duty or studying or attending lectures and clinics. I don't faint any more. And the poor little sufferers fill my heart with sympathy. I do love children – even defective ones. It makes me furious that there should be any. We must regulate this some day. And regulate birth control, too.
It is interesting; I am rather glad that I shall have had this experience. As a graduate nurse, some day, I shall add immensely to my own self-respect and self-confidence. But I should never pursue the profession further; never study medicine; never desire to become a professional physician. The minute I graduate I shall rent a studio and start in to find out what most properly shall be my vehicle for self-expression.
I forgot to tell you that Oswald Grismer's father and mother are dead within a week of each other. Pneumonia! Poor boy, he is stunned. He wrote me. He won't give any every second to creative work without a thought of financial gain.
Harry Belter is such a funny, fat man. He asks after you every time I meet him. I sent you some of his cartoons in the Star. Badger Spink is an odd sort of man with his big, boyish figure and his mass of pompadour hair and his inextinguishable energy and amazing talent. He draws, draws, draws all the time; you see his pictures in every periodical; yet he seems to have time for all sorts of gaiety, private theatricals, dances, entertainments. He belongs to tie Players, the Ten Cent Club, the Dutch Treat, Illustrators, Lotus, Coffee House, Two by Four – and about a hundred others – and I think he's president of most of them.He always sends his regards to you and requests to know whether you're not yet fed up with Latin Quarter stuff – whatever that means!
And Clarence Verne always mentions you. Such a curious man with a face like Pharaoh, and Egyptian hands, too, deeply cut in between thumb and forefinger like the hands of people sculptured in bas reliefs on Egyptian tombs.
But such lovely girls he paints! – so exquisite! He is a very odd man – with a fixed gaze, and speaks as though he were a trifle deaf – or drugged, or something…
You haven't said much about yourself, Jim, in your last letters; and also your letters arrive at longer and longer intervals.
Somehow, I think that you are becoming reconciled to Paris. I don't believe you feel very lonely any longer. But what do you do to amuse yourself after your hours of work are ended? And who are your new friends over there? For, of course, you must have made new friends – I don't mean the students whose names you have occasionally mentioned. Haven't you met any nice girls?
He did not mention having met any girls, nice or otherwise, when he wrote again. He did say that he was enjoying his work and that he had begun to feel a certain affection for Paris – particularly after he had been away travelling in Germany, Spain and Italy. Really, he admitted, it was like coming home. The usual was still happening to James Cleland.
He had an apartment, now, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. He had friends to dinner sometimes. There was always plenty to do. Life had become very inspiring. The French theatres were a liberal education; French literature a miracle of artistic clarity and a model for all young aspirants. In fact, the spring source of all art was France, and Paris the ornamental fountain jet from which flashed the ever-living waters that all may quaff.
Very pretty. He did not add that some of the waters were bottled and kept in pails of chopped ice. He wrote many gracefully composed pages – when he wrote at all – concerning the misty beauty of the French landscape and the effect of the rising sun of Notre Dame. He had seen it rise several times.
But, on the whole, he behaved discreetly and with much circumspection; and within his youthful heart lay that deathless magic of the creative mind which transmutes leaden reality into golden romance – which is blind to the sordid and which transforms it into the picturesque.
A saucy smile from a pretty girl on an April day germinated into a graceful string of verses by night; a chance encounter by the Seine, a laugh, a gay adieu – and a delicate short story was born, perhaps to be laboured over and groomed and swaddled and nourished into life – or to be abandoned, perhaps, in the back yard of literary d?bris.
Life ran evenly and pleasantly for Cleland in those deathless days – light, happy, irresponsible days when idleness becomes saturated with future energy unawares; when the seeds of inspiration fall thicker and thicker and take root; when the liberality, the vastness, and the inspiration of the world begin to dawn upon a youthful intellect, not oppressively, but with a wide and reassuring kindliness.
There was a young girl – very pretty, whose loneliness made her not too conventional. After several encounters on the stairs, she smiled in response; and they crossed the Luxembourg Gardens together, strolling in the chestnut shade and exchanging views of life.
The affair continued – charming and quite harmless – a touch of tragedy and tears one evening – and the boy deeply touched and temporarily in love – in love with love, temporarily embodied in this blue-eyed, white-skinned, slender girl who had wandered with him close to the dead line and was inclined to cross it – with him.
He had a delightfully wretched hour of renunciation – and was rewarded with much future material, though he didn't know it at the time.
There were tears – several. It is not certain that she spiritually appreciated the situation. That sort of gratitude seldom is genuine in the feminine heart.
But such things are very real to the creative mind, and Cleland was far too unhappy to sleep – deeply wallowing in martyrdom. Fate laughed and pinned this little episode on the clothes-line to dry out with the others – quite a little line-full, now, all fluttering gaily there and drying in the sun. And after a proper interval Cleland wont about the business of washing out a few more samples of experience in the life and manners and customs of his time, later to be added to the clothes-line wash.
He had to prod himself to write to Stephanie. He was finding it a little difficult to discover very much to say to her. In youth two people grow apart during absence much faster than they grow together when in each other's company.
It was so with Cleland and Stephanie – less so with her.
Not seeing her for nearly two years left him with the unconscious impression that she had not altered during that period – that she was still the same young girl he had left, no more mature, no more experienced, little wiser.
Her letters were interesting but he had lost touch, in a measure, with interests and people at home. He had adapted himself to the new angle of vision, to the new aspect of life, to new ideals, new aspirations. He was at the source of inspiration, drinking frequently at times, always unconsciously absorbing.
At the end of the two years he had no desire to return to New York.
A series of voluminous letters passed between him and Stephanie and between him and Miss Quest.
He had plenty of excuses for remaining another year; his education was not completed; he needed a certain atmosphere and a certain environment which could be enjoyed only in Europe.
Of course, if he were needed in New York, etc., etc. No, he wasn't needed. Matters could be attended to. The house in 80th Street ought to be closed as it was a useless expense to keep the servants there.
Poor old Meacham had died; Janet, too, was dead; Lizzie had gone back to Ireland. The house in town should, therefore, be closed and wired; and the house in the country, "Runner's Rest," should remain closed and in charge of the farmer who had always looked out for it.
This could be attended to; no need of his coming back.
So he wrote his directions to Stephanie and settled down again with a sigh of relief to the golden days which promised.
His work, now deeply coloured by Gallic influence and environment, had developed to that stage of embryonic promise marred by mannerisms and affectations. His style, temporarily spoiled by a sort of Franco-American jargon, became involved in the swamps of psychological subtleties, emerging jerkily at times, or relapsing into Debussy-like redundancy.
Nobody wanted his short stories, his poems, his impressions. Publishers in London and in America returned "Day Dreams" and "Out of the Depths" with polite regrets. He sounded every depth of despondency and self-distrust; he soared on wings of hope again, striving to keep his gaze on the blinding source of light, only to become confused and dazzled in the upper oceans and waver and flutter and come tumbling down, frantically beating the too rarified atmosphere with unaccustomed wings.
Nobody could tell him. He had to find out the way. He had within him what was worth saying; had not yet learned how to say it. The massed testimony of the masters lay heavily undigested within him; he was too richly fed, stuffed; the intricacies and complexities of technique worried and disheartened him; he felt too keenly, too deeply to keep a clear mind and a cool one.
Every sense he possessed was necessary to him in his creative work; emotion, intense personal sympathy with his characters, his theme, clogged, checked and halted inspiration, smothering simplicity and clarity. This was a phase. He had the usual experience. He struggled through it and onward.
Stephanie wrote that she had graduated, but that as her aunt was ill she would remain for the present at the hospital.
He felt that he ought to go back. And did not. He was in a dreadfully involved dilemma with his new novel, "Renunciation" – all about a woman – one of the sort he never had met – and no wonder he was in a mess! Besides that, and in spite of the gaily coloured line of rags fluttering on the clothes-line of experience, he knew very little about women. One day, when he came to realize that he knew nothing at all about them, he might begin to write about them, convincingly and acceptably. But he was not yet as far along as that in his education.
He had a desperate affair with an engaging woman of the real world – a countess. She took excellent care of herself, had a delightful time with Cleland, and, in gratitude, opened his eyes to the literary morass in which he had been wading.
Clear-minded, witty, charming, very lovely to look upon, she read and criticised what he wrote, discussed, consulted, advised, and, with exquisite tact, divining the boy's real talent, led him deftly to solid land again. And left him there, enchanted, miserable, inspired, heart-broken, with a laughing admonition to be faithful to her memory while she enjoyed her husband's new post at the Embassy in Sofia.
He wrote, after her departure, a poem simple enough for a child to understand. And tucked it away with a ribbon and a dried flower in his portfolio. It was the first good thing he had ever written. But he remained unconscious of the fact for a long time.
Besides, other matters were bothering him, in particular a letter from Miss Quest:
I am not well. I shall not be better. Still, there is no particular hurry about your returning.
Stephanie remains with me very loyally. She has graduated; she is equipped with a profession. She has turned into a very lovely woman to look upon.
But that sex restlessness which now overwhelmingly obsesses the world, possesses her. Freedom from all restraint, liberty to work out and accomplish her own destiny, contempt of convention, utter disregard of established formality, and hostility to custom, enroll her among the vast army of revolutionists now demanding a revision of all laws and customs made by one sex alone to govern the conduct of both.
You and I once conversed on this subject, if you remember. I told you what I feared. And it has happened: Stephanie has developed along radical lines. With everything revolutionary in the world-wide feminist movement she is in sympathy. Standards that have been standards are no longer so to her. To the world's conservatism she is fiercely and youthfully hostile; equality, tolerance, liberty are the only guide-posts she pretends to recognize.
I shall not live to see the outcome of this world-wide propaganda and revolt. I don't want to. But, in my opinion, it takes a strong character, already accustomed to liberty, to keep its balance in this dazzling flood let in by opening prison doors…
I have left Stephanie what property I have outside of that invested and endowed to maintain my Home for Defective Children. Securities have shrunk; it is not much. It may add four thousand dollars to her present income.
Mr. Cleland, you and Stephanie have gradually and very naturally grown apart since your absence. I don't know what you have developed into. But you were a nice boy.
Stephanie is a beautiful, willful, intelligent, and I fear slightly erratic woman, alive with physical and mental vigour, restless and sensitive under pressure of control, yet to be controlled through her affections first, and only afterward through her reason.
These are unconventional times; a new freedom is dawning, and to me the dawn seems threatening. I am too old, too near my end not to feel that the old r?gime, with all its drawbacks, was safer for women, productive of better results, less hazardous, less threatening.
But I don't know: I am old-fashioned except in theory. I have professed the creed of the new feminism; I have in my time – and very properly – denounced the tyranny and selfishness and injustice of man-made laws which fetter and cripple my sex.
But – at heart – and with not very many days left to me – at heart I am returning rather wearily along the way I came toward what, now to me, seems safer. It may be only the notions of an old woman, very tired, very sad, conscious of failure, and ready to rest and leave the responsibility where it originated and where it belongs. I don't know. But I wish Stephanie were not alone in the world.
Miss Quest died before the letter reached him. Stephanie's next letter informed him of all the details. She continued:
No use your coming back until you are quite ready, Jim. There's nothing for you to do.
I've taken a studio and apartment with Helen Davis, the animal sculptor. I don't yet know just what I shall do. I'm likely to try several things before I know what I ought to stick to.
Don't feel any absurd sense of responsibility for me. That would be too silly. Feel free to remain abroad as long as it suits you. I also feel absolutely free to go and come as I please. That's the best basis for our friendship, Jim, and, in fact, the necessary and vital basis. My affection is unaltered, but, somehow, it has been such a long time that you seem almost unreal to me.
He did not sail at once. After all, in the face of such an unmistakable declaration of independence, it did not seem worth while for him to arouse himself from the golden lethargy of enchantment and break the spell of Europe which held him content, amid the mellow ripeness of her capitals and the tinted splendour of her traditions.
He wrote frequently for a few months. Then his letters lagged.
Once his pretty Countess had warned him that, for an American, Europe was merely the school-room but his own country was the proper and only place for creative labour.
He remembered this at intervals, a little uneasy, a trifle conscious-stricken because he shrank from making an end to preparation – because he still loitered, disinclined to break the golden web and return to the clear, shadowless skies and the pitiless sun of the real world where he belonged, and where alone, he knew, was the workshop for which he had been so leisurely preparing.
Then the shock came – the bolt out of the blue.
The cablegram said:
He sailed in April. When he sailed, he knew he would not come back for many years, if ever. His business here was done, the dream of Europe ended. The cycle of Cathay awaited him in all its acrid crudity.
Yes, the golden web was rent, torn across, destroyed. The shock to his American mind left nothing of the lotus eater in him. He was returning where he belonged.
Married! Steve married! To Oswald Grismer, who, save as a schoolboy and later in college, was a doubtful and unknown quantity to him.
He had never known Grismer well. Since their schoolboy differences, they had been good enough friends when thrown together, which had been infrequently. He had no particular liking for Grismer, no dislike. Grismer had been a clever, adroit, amusing man in college, generally popular, yet with no intimacies, no close friends.
As for Steve, he never dreamed that Stephanie would do such a thing. It was so damnably silly, so utterly unthinkable a thing to do.
And in his angry perplexity and growing resentment, Cleland's conscience hurt as steadily as a toothache. He ought to have been home long ago. He should have gone back at the end of his two years. His father had trusted him to look out for Steve, and, in spite of her rather bumptious letters proclaiming her independence, he should have gone back and kept an eye on her, whether or not she liked it.
In his astonishment and unhappiness, he did not know what to write her when the cablegram came hurtling into his calm and delightfully ordered life and blew up the whole fabric.
Sometimes, to himself, he called her a "little fool"; sometimes "poor little Steve." But always he unfeignedly cursed Grismer and bitterly blamed himself.
The affair made him sick at heart and miserable, and ruined any pleasure remaining in his life and work.
He did not cable her; he wrote many letters and tore all of them to bits. It was beyond him to accept the fait accompli, beyond him to write even politely, let alone with any pretense of cordiality.
His resentment grew steadily, increased by self-reproach. What kind of man had Oswald Grismer grown into? What kind of insolence was this – his marrying Steve —
"Damn his yellow soul, I'll wring his neck!" muttered Cleland, pacing the deck of the Cunarder in the chilly April sunshine.
But the immense astonishment of it still possessed him. He couldn't imagine Steve married. Why had she married? What earthly reason was there? It was incredible, absurd.
Still in his mind lingered the image of the girl Stephanie whom he remembered as he last had seen her.
Once or twice, too, thinking of that time, and conjuring up all he could picture of her, he remembered the delicate ardour of her parting embrace, the fragrant warmth of her mouth, and her arms around his neck.
It angered him oddly to remember it – to think of her as the wife of Oswald Grismer. The idea seemed unendurable; it threw him into a rage against this man who had so suddenly taken Stephanie Quest out of his life.
"Damn him! Damn him!" he muttered, staring out over the wind-whipped sea. "I'd like to twist his neck! There's something queer about this. I'll take her away from him if I can. I'll do everything I can to take her away from him. I want her back. I'll get her back if it's possible. How can she care for Grismer?"
He had nobody, now, to return to; no home, for the house was closed; no welcome to expect.
He had not written her that he was coming; he had no desire to see her at the steamer with Grismer. With a youthful heart full of indefinable bitterness and self-contempt that his own indifference and selfishness had brought Steve and himself to such a pass, he paced the decks day after day, making no acquaintances, keeping to himself.
And one night the great light on Montauk Point stared at him across leagues of unseen water. He was in touch again with his own half of the earth, nearing the edges of the great, raw, sprawling Continent where no delicate haze of tradition softened sordid facts; where there reigned no calm and ordered philosophy of life; where everything was in extremes; where everything was etched sharply against aggressive backgrounds; where there were no misty middle distances, no tranquil spaces; only the roaring silences of deserts to mitigate the yelling dissonance of life.
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