The Restless Sex
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He saw the sun on the gilded tips of snowy towers piled up like Alpine cliffs; the vast webs of bridges stretching athwart a leaden flood; forests of masts and huge painted funnels; acres of piers and docks; myriads of craft crossing and recrossing the silvery flood flowing between great cities.
On the red castle to the southwest a flag flew, sun-dyed, vivid, lovely as a flower.
His eyes filled; he choked.
"Thank God," he thought, "I'm where I belong at last!"
And so Cleland came home.
It was late afternoon before Cleland got his luggage unpacked and himself settled in the Hotel Rochambeau, where he had been driven from the steamer and had taken rooms.
The French cuisine, the French proprietor and personnel, the French caf? in front, all helped to make his home-coming a little less lonely and strange. Sunlight fell on the quaint yellow brick fa?ade and old-fashioned wrought iron railings, and made his musty rooms and tarnished furniture and hangings almost cheerful.
He had not telephoned to Stephanie. He had nothing to say to her over the wire. From the moment he crossed the gang-plank the growing resentment had turned to a curious, impotent sort of anger which excited him and stifled any other emotion.
She had not known that he was coming back. He had made no response to her cablegram. She could not dream that he had landed; that he was within a stone's throw of her lodgings.
The whole thing, too, seemed unreal to him Ц to find himself here in New York again amid its clamour, its dinginess, its sham architecture and crass ugliness!†Ц back again in New York Ц and everything in his life so utterly changed!†Ц no home Ц the 80th Street house still closed and wired and the old servants gone or dead; and the city empty of interest and lonely as a wilderness to him since his father's death Ц and now Steve gone! nothing, now, to hold him here Ц for the ties of friends and clubs had loosened during his years abroad, and his mind and spirit had become formed in other moulds.
Yet here he knew he must do his work if ever he was to do any. Here was the place for the native-born Ц here his workshop where he must use and fashion all that he had witnessed and learned of life during the golden hours through which he sauntered under the lovely skies of an older civilization.
Here was the place and now was the time for self-expression, for creative work, for the artistic interpretation of the life and manners of his own people.
If he was to do anything, be anybody, attain distinction, count among writers of his era, he knew that his effort lay here Ц here where he was born and lived his youth to manhood Ц here where the tension of feverish living never relaxed, where a young, high-mettled, high-strung nation was clamouring and fretting and quarrelling and forging ahead, now floundering aside after some will-o'-the-wisp, now scaling stupendous moral heights, noisy, half-educated, half-civilized, suspicious, flippant, bragging, sentimental, yet iron-hearted, generous and brave.
Here, on the nation's eastern edge, where the shattering dissonance of the iron city never ceased by day; where its vast, metallic vibration left the night eternally unquiet and the very sky quivering with the blows of sound under the stars' incessant sparkle Ц here, after all, was where he belonged.Here he must have his say. Here lay his destiny. And, for the sake of all this which was his, and for no other reason, was attainment and distinction worth his effort.
All this good and evil, all this abominable turmoil and futile discord, all this relentless, untiring struggle deep in the dusty, twilight ca?ons and steel towers with their thin skins of stone Ц all the passions of these people, and their motives and their headlong strivings and their creeds and sentiments, false or true or misguided Ц these things were his to interpret, to understand, to employ.
For these people, and for their cities, for their ambitions, desires, aspirations Ц for the vast nation of which they formed their local fragment Ц only a native-born could be their interpreter, their eulogist, their defender, their apologist, and their prophet. And for their credit alone was there any reason for his life's endeavour.
No cultured, suave product of generations of Europe's cultivation could handle these people and these themes convincingly and with the subtle comprehension of authority. Rod and laurel, scalpel and palm should be touched only by the hand of the native-born.
His pretty Countess had said to him once:
"Only what you have seen, what you have lived and seen others live; only what you detect from the clear-minded, cool, emotionless analysis of your own people, is worth the telling. Only this carries conviction. And, when told with all the cunning simplicity and skill of an artist, it carries with it that authority which leaves an impression indelible! Go back to your own people Ц if you really have anything to write worth reading."
Thinking of these things, he locked his door on rooms now more or less in order, and went out into the street.
It was too warm for an overcoat. A primrose sunset light filled the street; the almost forgotten specific odour of New York invaded his memory again Ц an odour entirely different from that of any other city. For every city in the world has its own odour Ц not always a perfume.
Now, again, his heart was beating hard and fast at thought of seeing Stephanie, and the same indefinable anger possessed him Ц not directed entirely against anyone, but inclusive of himself, and her, and Grismer, and his own helplessness and isolation.
The street she lived in was quiet. There seemed to be a number of studios along the block. In a few minutes he saw the number he was looking for.
Four brick dwelling houses had been made over into one with studios on every floor Ц a rather pretty Colonial effect with green shutters, white doorway, and iron fence painted white.
In the quaint vestibule with its classic fanlight and delicate side-lights, he found her name on a letter box and pushed the electric button. The street door swung open noiselessly.
On the ground floor, facing him on the right, he saw a door on which was a copper plate bearing the names, "Miss Davis; Miss Quest." The door opened as he touched the knocker; a young girl in stained sculptor's smock stood there regarding him inquiringly, a cigarette between her pretty, clay-stained fingers.
"Miss Ц " he checked himself, reddening Ц "Mrs. Grismer, I mean?" he asked.
The girl laughed. She was brown-eyed, pink-cheeked, compactly and beautifully moulded, and her poise and movement betrayed the elasticity of superb health.
"She's out just now. Will you come in and wait?"
He went in, aware of clay studies on revolving stands, academic studies in unframed canvases, charcoal drawings from the nude, thumb-tacked to the wall Ц the usual mess of dusty draperies, decrepit and nondescript furniture, soiled rugs and cherished objects of art. A cloying smell of plasticine pervaded the place. A large yellow cat, dozing on a sofa, opened one golden eye a little way, then closed it indifferently.
The girl who had admitted him indicated a chair and stepped before a revolving table on which was the roughly-modelled sketch of a horse and rider.
She picked up a lump of waxy material, and, kneading it in one hand, glanced absently at the sketch, then looked over her shoulder at Cleland with a friendly, enquiring air:
"Miss Quest went out to see about her costume. I suppose she'll be back shortly."
"What costume?" he asked.
"Oh, didn't you know? It's for the Caricaturists' Ball in aid of the Artists' Fund. It's the Ball of the Gods Ц the great event of the season and the last. Evidently you don't live in New York."
"I haven't, recently."
"I see. Will you have a cigarette?" She pointed at a box on a tea tray; he thanked her and lighted one. As he continued to remain standing, she asked him again to be seated, and he complied.
She continued to pinch off little lumps of waxy, pliable composition and stick them on the horse. Still fussing with the sketch, he saw a smile curve her cheek in profile; and presently she said without turning:
"Why did you speak of Stephanie Quest as Mrs. Grismer? We don't, you know."
"Why not? Isn't she?"
The girl looked at him over her shoulder; she was startlingly pretty, fresh and smooth-skinned as a child.
"Who are you?" she asked, with that same little hint of friendly curiosity in her brown eyes; Ц "I'm Helen Davis, Stephanie's chum. You seem to know a good deal about her."
"I'm James Cleland," he said quietly, " Ц her brother."
At that the girl's brown eyes flew wide open:
"Good Heavens!" she said; "did Steve expect you? She never said a word to me! I thought you were a fixture in Europe!"
He sat biting the end of his cigarette, not looking at her:
"She didn't expect me," he said, flinging the half-burned cigarette into the silver slop-dish of the tea service. "I didn't notify her that I was coming."
Helen Davis dropped one elbow on the modelling table, rested her rounded chin in her palm, and bent her eyes on Cleland. Smoke from the cigarette between her fingers mounted in a straight, thin band to the ceiling.
"So you are Steve's Jim," she mused aloud. "I recognize you now, from your photographs, only you're older and thinner Ц and you wear a moustacheЕ You've been away a long while, haven't you?"
"Too long," he said, casting a sombre look at her.
"Oh, do you feel that way? How odd it will seem to you to see Steve again. She's such a darling! Quite wonderful, Mr. Cleland. The artists' colony in New York raves over her."
"Does it?" he said drily.
"Everybody does. She's so amusing, so clever, so full of talent and animation Ц like a beautiful and mischievous thoroughbred on tip-toes with vitality and the sheer joy of living. She never is in low spirits or depressed. That's what fascinates everybody Ц her gaiety and energy and high spirits. I knew her in college and she wasn't quite that way then. Perhaps because she hated college. But she could be a perfect little devil if she wanted to. She can be that still."
Cleland nodded almost absently; his preoccupied gaze travelled over the disordered studio and concentrated scowlingly on the yellow cat. He kept twisting the head of his walking stick between his hands and staring at the animal in silence while Helen Davis watched him. Presently, and without any excuse, she walked slowly away and vanished into some inner room. When she returned, she had discarded her working smock, and her smooth hands were slightly rosy from a recent toilet.
"I'm going to give you some tea," she said, striking a match and lighting the lamp under the kettle at his elbow.
"Thanks, no," he said with an effort.
"Yes, you shall have some," she insisted, smiling in her gay little friendly way. "Come, Mr. Cleland, you are man of the world enough to waive formality. I'm going to sit here and make tea and talk to you. Look at me! Wouldn't you like to be friends with me? Most men would."
He looked up, and his slightly drawn features relaxed.
"Yes," he said with a smile, "of course I would."
"That's very human of you," she laughed. "Shall we talk about Steve? What did you think of that cablegram? Did you ever hear of such a crazy thing?"
He flushed with anger but said nothing. The girl looked at him intently over the steaming kettle, then went on measuring out tea.
"Shall I tell you about it, or would you rather that Steve told you?" she asked carelessly, busy with her preparations.
"She is actually married to Ц Grismer Ц then?"
"Well Ц I suppose so. You know him, of course."
"He is fascinating Ц in that unusual way of his Ц poor fellow. Women like him better than men do. One meets him everywhere in artistic circles; but do you know, Mr. Cleland, I've always seemed to be conscious of a curious sort of latent hostility to Oswald Grismer, even among people he frequents Ц among men, particularly. However, he has no intimates."
"If they are actually married," he said with an effort, "why does Stephanie live here with you?"
"Oh, that was the ridiculous understanding. I myself don't know why she married him. The whole affair was a crazy, feather-brained performance Ц " She poured his tea and offered him a sugar biscuit, which he declined.
"You see," she continued, curling up into the depths of her rickety velvet arm-chair and taking her cup and a heap of sugar biscuits into her lap, "Oswald Grismer has been Steve's shadow Ц at her heels always Ц and I know well enough that Stephanie was not insensible to the curious fascination of the man. You know how devotion impresses a girl Ц and he is clever and good looking.
"And that was all very well, and I don't think it would have amounted to anything serious as long as Oswald was the amusing, good-looking, lazy and rich amateur of sculpture, with plenty of leisure to saunter through life and be charmingly attentive, and play with his profession when the whim suited him."
She sipped her tea and looked at Cleland meditatively.
"Did you know he'd lost all his money?"
"No," said Cleland.
"Oh, yes. He lost it a year ago. He has scarcely anything, I believe. He had a beautiful studio and apartment, wonderful treasures of antique furniture; he had about everything a rich young man fancies. It all went."
"What was the matter?"
"Nobody knows. He took a horrid little stable studio in Bleecker Street, and he lives there. And that's why Steve did that crazy, impulsive thing, I suppose."
"You mean she was sorry for him?"
"I think it must have been that Ц and the general fascination he had for her Ц and his persistency and devotion. Really, I don't know, myself, how she came to do it. She did it on one of her ill-considered, generous, headlong impulses. Ask her. All she ever told me was that she had married Oswald and didn't know how it was going to turn out, but had decided to keep her own name for the present and continue to live with me."
"Do they see each other Ц much?" he asked.
"Oh, they encounter each other here and there as usual. He drops in here every day."
"Does she go Ц there?"
"I don't know," said the girl gravely.
He had set aside his tea, untasted. She, still curled up in her arm-chair, ate and drank with a delightfully healthy appetite.
"Would you prefer a highball?" she enquired. "I could fix you one."
"No, thank you." He rose and began to walk nervously about the studio.
Her perplexed, brown eyes followed him. It was clear that she could not make him out.
Natural chagrin at a clandestine marriage might account for his manner. Probably it was that, because Stephanie could not have meant anything more personal and serious to him, or he could not have remained away so long.
He stopped abruptly in his aimless promenade and turned to Helen:
"Am I in the way?" he asked.
"My dear Mr. Cleland," she said, "we are a perfectly informal community. If you were in the way I'd say so. Also, I have a bed-room where I can retire when Steve comes in. Or you and she can go into her room to talk things over." She lighted another cigarette, rose, strolled over to the wax horse, with a friendly smile at him.
"I was just making a sketch," she said. "I've a jolly commission Ц two bronze horses for the Hispano-Moresque Museum. The Cid is on one, Saladin on the other. I was just fussing with an idea when you rang."
He came and stood beside her, looking at the sketch.
"I've a fine, glass-roofed courtyard in the rear of the studio for my animal models Ц horses and dogs and any beast I require," she explained. "This sort of thing comes first, of course. I think I'll get Oswald to pose for the Cid."
She stood contemplating her sketch, the cigarette balanced between her fingers; then, of a sudden, she turned swiftly around to confront him.
"Mr. Cleland, it is a dreadful and foolish and irrational thing that Steve has done, and I know you are justly angry. But Ц she is a darling in spite of being a feather-head sometimes. You will forgive her, won't you?"
"Of course. After all, it is her business."
"You are angry. But please don't lose interest in her. She's so loyal to you. She adores you, Mr. Cleland Ц "
A key rattled in the lock; the door swung open; into the dusky studio stepped a slender figure, charmingly buoyant and graceful in the fading light.
"Helen, they're to send our costumes in an hour. They are the most fascinating things Ц "
Stephanie's voice ceased abruptly. There was a silence.
"Who is Чthat?" she asked unsteadily.
Helen turned and went quietly away toward her bed-room. Stephanie stood as though frozen, then reached forward and pressed the electric button with a gloved finger that trembled.
"Jim!" she whispered.
She stole forward, nearer, close to him, still incredulous, her grey eyes wide with excitement; then, with a little sobbing cry she threw both arms around his neck.
She had laughed and cried there in his arms; her lovely head and disordered hair witnessed the passionate ardour of her welcome to this man who now sat beside her in her bed-room, her hands clasped in his, and all her young soul's adoration in her splendid eyes.
"Oh," she whispered again and again, " Ц Oh, to have you back, Jim. That is too heavenly to believe. You dear, dear boy Ц so good looking Ц and a little older and graver Ц " She nestled close to him, laying her cheek against his.
"It seems too delicious to endure. You do love me, don't you, Jim? We haven't anybody else in the world except each other, you know. Isn't it good Ц good to have each other again! It's been like a dream, your absence. You gradually became unreal Ц a dear, beloved memory. Somehow, I didn't think you'd ever come back. Are you happy to be with me?"
"Happier than you know, Steve Ц " His voice trembled oddly and he drew her into his arms: "Good God," he said under his breath, " Ц I must have been mad to leave you to your own devices so long! I ought to be shot!"
"What do you mean, Jim?"
"You know. Oh, Steve, Steve, I can't understand Ц I simply can not understand."
After a silence she lifted her head and rested her lips softly against his cheek.
"Do you mean Ц my marrying Oswald?" she asked.
"Yes. Why did you do such a thing?"
She bent her head, considering the question for a while in silence. Then she said calmly:
"There's one reason why I did it that I can't tell you. I promised him not to. Another reason was that he was very much in love with me. I don't know exactly what it is that I feel for him Ц but he does fascinate me. He always did, somehow. Even as a boy Ц "
"You didn't know him as a boy!"
"No. But I saw him once. And I realize now that I was even then vaguely conscious of an odd interest in him. And that time at Cambridge, too. He had that same, indefinable attraction for me Ц "
"You are in love with him then!"
"I don't know. Jim, I don't think it is love. I don't think I know what love really is. So, knowing this, but being grateful to him, and deeply sorry Ц "
"I can't tell you why. Perhaps I'll tell you sometime. But I was very grateful and sorry and Ц and more or less moved Ц fascinated. It's funny; there are things I don't like about Oswald, and still I can't keep away from himЕ Well, so everything seemed to combine to make me try it Ц "
"What do you mean by 'trying it?'"
"Why, it's a trial marriage Ц "
"Good God!" he said. "What do you mean?"
"I mean it's a trial marriage," she repeated coolly.
"You mean there was no Ц no ceremony?" he stammered.
"There wasn't any ceremony. We don't believe in it. We just said to each other that we'd marry Ц "
"You mean you've Ц you've lived with that man on such terms of understanding?" he demanded, white with rage.
"I don't live with him. I live here with Helen," she said, perplexed. "All I would consent to was a trial marriage to see how it went for a year or two Ц "
"Do you mean that what you've done is legal?"
"Oh, yes, it's legal," she said seriously. "I've found that out."
"And Ц you know wh-what I mean," he said, stammering in his anger; "Was that sufficient for you? Do you want me to speak plainer, Steve? I mean, have you Ц lived with him?"
She understood and dropped her reddening cheek on his shoulder.
"Have you?" he repeated harshly.
"NoЕ I thought you understood. It is only a trial marriage; I've tried to explain that Ц make it clear Ц "
"What loose-minded, unconventional Bohemians call a 'trial marriage,'" he said, with brutal directness, "is an agreement between a pair of fools to live as man and wife for a while with an understanding that a formal ceremony shall ultimately confirm the irregularity if they find themselves suited to each other. Is that what you've done?"
He drew a deep, trembling breath of relief, took her in his arms and held her close.
"My little Steve," he whispered, " Ц my own little Steve! What sort of trap is this he's led you into?"
"No trap. I wanted to try it."
"You wished it?"
"I was quite willing to try. After a year or two, I'll know whether I shall ever care to live with him."
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