"After a year or two!"
"Yes. That was the understanding. And then, if I didn't wish to live with him, we can be very quietly divorced. It was a crazy thing to do. But there wasn't any real risk. Besides – " She hesitated.
"Go on," he said.
"No, I can't. If I don't fall in love with him, I certainly shall never live with him. So," she added calmly, "there'll be no children to complicate the parting. You see I had some sense, Jim."
She lifted her head from his shoulder and smiled at him:
"It was just an escapade of sorts," she explained, more cheerfully. "It really doesn't mean anything yet, and I fly around and have a wonderful time, and maybe I'll take up sculpture with Helen, and maybe I'll try the stage. Anyway – " she pressed closer to him with a happy sigh, "I've got you back, haven't I? So what do we care whether I'm his wife or not?"
He said, holding her closely embraced:
"Suppose some other man should fall in love with you, Steve?"
"Oh!" she laughed. "Plenty do. Or say they do. I'm nice to them, and they get along very well… Your moustache is becoming to you, Jim." She touched it curiously, with one tentative finger.
"But suppose you should return another man's love some day?"
"I haven't ever!" she said, laughing back into his eyes.
"No, but suppose you did? And found yourself tied legally by a fool agreement to Oswald Grismer?"
"Oh. I never considered that."
"Consider it, now!"
"It isn't likely to happen – "
"Consider it, all the same."
"Well – but I've never been in love. But if it happened – well – that would be a jolly mess, wouldn't it?"
"I should think so! What would you do about it?"
"There wouldn't be anything to do except to wait until my two years of trial marriage was up," she said thoughtfully.
"You could divorce him before that."
"Oh, no. I promised to give him two years."
"To sit saddled with this ridiculous burden for two years?"
"Yes, I promised."
"Oh, Steve! Steve! What a muddle you have made of things! What good does it do you or him to have this chain between you? You've lost your liberty. You're a legal wife without being one. You've put shackles on yourself for God knows what whim or caprice."
"But, Jim," she said, bewildered, "I expect to be his wife, ultimately."
"Of course. I wasn't absolutely sure that I could fall in love with him, that was all. I have very little doubt that I shall. I like to be with him: I am never bored when he is with me; our tastes are similar; our beliefs are unconventional. We suit each other admirably. It wasn't such a rash thing to do. You see, it is perfectly safe every way."
For a long while he sat beside her in silence. She had slipped out of his arms and now sat with one hand lying across his, watching the enigmatic expressions which flitted over his rather sombre and flushed features.
Finally he looked up:
"Suppose I fell in love with – you?"
"Oh, Jim!" She began to laugh, then the mirth faded in her grey eyes, and her lips grew quiet and rather grave.
"You?" she said, half to herself.
"Do you remember some letters I once wrote you?"
"You wrote asking if I meant them to be love letters."
"They were love letters," he said. "I didn't happen to know it; that is all. I was in love with you then. I didn't realize it; you did not believe it. But now I know it was so."
"How could you have been in love with me?" she inquired, astonished.
"You asked me that in your letters. I thought it over and I didn't see how I could be, either. I wasn't much more than a boy. Boys drift with the prevailing tide. The tide set away from home and from you… Yet, I was in love with you once, Steve."
She bent her head and looked down gravely at her slender hand, which lay across his.
"That was very dear of you," she murmured.
After a silence:
"And – you?" he asked.
"Do you mean, was I ever in love with you?"
"I – don't – know. I loved your letters. There didn't seem to be any room in my heart for more affection than it held for you. I adored you. I do now. Perhaps, if you had come back – "
"I wish I had!"
"Do you?" She lifted her eyes to him curiously. "You know, Jim, I must be honest with you. I never did love anybody… But, if you had come home – and if you had told me that you cared for me – that way – "
"Well, I was just a girl. You had my affections. I could have been taught very easily, I think – to care – differently – "
"And – now?"
"Is it too late to teach you, Steve?"
"Why, yes. Isn't it?"
"It's a flimsy, miserable business!" he began angrily, but she flushed and checked him with a hand against his lips.
"Besides – I do care for Oswald – very deeply," she said. "Don't say painful things to me… Don't be sulky, Jim, dear. This is disconcerting me dreadfully. We mustn't make anything tragic out of it – anything unhappy. I'm so contented to have you back that I can't think of anything else… Don't let's bother about love or anything else! What you and I feel for each other is more wonderful than love. Isn't it? Oh, Jim, I do adore you. We'll be with each other now a lot, won't we? You'll take a studio in this district, and I'll fly in at all hours to see you, and you'll come in to see me and we'll do things together – everything – theatres, dances, pictures, everything! And you will like Oswald, won't you? He's really so nice, poor boy!"
"All right," he muttered.
They rose; he took both her hands into his and looked intently into her grey eyes:
"I won't spoil life for you," he said. "I'll be near you, now. The old intimacy must be strengthened. I've failed wretchedly in my responsibilities; I'll try to make up for my selfishness – "
"Oh, Jim! I don't think that way – "
"You are too generous. You are too loyal. You are quite the most charming woman I ever knew, Steve – the sweetest, the most adorable. I've been a fool – blind and stupid."
"You mustn't say such ridiculous things! But it is dear of you to find me attractive! It really thrills me, Jim. I'm about the happiest girl in New York, I think! Tell me, do you like Helen?"
"Yes, she's nice. Where are you dining, Steve? Could you – "
"Oh, dear! Helen and I are dining out! It's a party. We all go to the ball. But, Jim – do get a costume of some sort and come to the Caricaturists' Ball! Will you? Helen and I are going. It's the Ball of the Gods – the last costume ball of the season, and it is sure to be amusing. Will you come?"
He didn't seem to think he could, but she insisted so eagerly and promised to have an invitation at his hotel for him by nine o'clock, that he laughed and said he'd go.
"Everybody artistic will be there," she explained, delighted. "You'll meet a lot of men you know. And the pageant will be wonderful. I shall be in it. So will Helen. Then, after the pageant, we'll find each other – you and I! – " She sighed: "I am too happy, Jim. I don't want to arouse the anger of the gods."
She linked her arm in his and entered the studio.
"Helen!" she called. "Jim is coming to the dance! Isn't it delightful?"
"It is, indeed," said Helen, opening her door a little and looking through the crack. "You'd better tell him what you're wearing, because he will never know you."
"Oh, yes, indeed! Helen and I are going as a pair of Burmese idols – just gold all over – you know – ?"
She took the stiff attitude of the wonderful Burmese idol, and threw back her slender hands – "This sort of thing, Jim? Tiny gold bells on our ankles and that wonderful golden filigree head dress."
She was in wonderful spirits; she caught his arm and hand and persuaded him into a two-step, humming the air. "You dance nicely, Jim. You can have me whenever you like – "
Helen called through the door:
"You're quite mad, Steve! You've scarcely time to dress."
"Oh, I must run!" she cried, turned to Cleland, audaciously, offered her lips, almost defiantly.
"We're quite safe, Jim, if we can do this so innocently." She laughed. "You adorable boy! Oh, Jim, you're mine now, and I'll never let you go away again!"
As he went out, he met Grismer, face to face. The blood leaped hotly in his cheeks; Grismer's golden eyes opened in astonishment:
"Cleland! By all the gods!" he said, offering his hand.
Cleland took it, looked into Grismer's handsome face:
"How are you, Grismer?" he said pleasantly. And passed on out of the front door.
Cleland dined by himself in the lively, crowded caf? of the Hotel Rochambeau – a sombre, taciturn young man, still upset by his encounter with Grismer, still brooding impotent resentment against what Stephanie had done. Yet, in spite of this the thrill of seeing her again persisted, filling him with subdued excitement.
He realized that the pretty, engaging college girl he had left three years ago had developed into an amazingly lovely being with a delicately vigorous and decisive beauty of her own, quite unexpected by him. But there was absolutely no shyness, no awkwardness, no self-consciousness in her undisguised affection for him; the years had neither altered nor subdued her innocent acceptance of their relationship, nor made her less frank, less confident, or less certain of it and of the happy security it meant for both.
In spite of her twenty-one years, her education, her hospital experience, Stephanie, in this regard, was a little girl still. For her the glamour of the school-boy had never departed from Cleland with the advent of his manhood. He was still, to her, the wonderful and desirable playmate, the miraculous new brother, the exalted youth of her girlhood; the beloved and ideal of their long separation – all she had on earth that represented a substitute for kin and family ties and home. That her loyal heart was still the tender, impulsive, youthful heart of a girl was plain enough to him. The frankness of her ardour, her instant happy surrender, her clinging to him in a passion of gratitude and delight, all told him her story. But it made what she had done with Grismer the more maddening and inexplicable; and at every thought of it a gust of jealousy swept him.
He ate his dinner scarcely conscious of the jolly tumult around him, and presently went upstairs to his rooms to rummage in one of his trunks for a costume; – souvenir of some ancient Latin Quarter revelry – Closerie des Lilas or Quat'z Arts, perhaps.
Under his door had been thrust an envelope containing a card bearing his invitation, and Stephanie had written on it: "It will all be spoiled if you are not there. Don't forget that you'll have to dress as a god of sorts. All other costumes are barred."
What he had would do excellently. His costume of a blessed companion of Mahomet in white, green and silver, with its jeweled scimitar, its close-fitted body dress, gorget, and light silver head-piece, represented acceptably the ideal garb of the Lion of God militant.
Toward eleven o'clock, regarding himself rather gloomily in the mirror, the reflected image of an exceedingly good-looking Fourth Caliph, with the faint line of a mustache darkening his short upper lip and the green gems of a true believer glittering on casque and girdle and hilt, cheered the young man considerably.
"If I'm not a god," he thought, "I'm henchman to one." And he twisted the pale green turban around his helmet and sent for a taxicab.
The streets around the Garden were jammed. Mounted and foot-police laboured to keep back the curious crowds and to direct the crush of arriving vehicles laden with fantastic figures in silks and jewels. Arcades, portico, and the broad lobby leading to the amphitheatre were thronged with animated merrymakers in brilliant costumes; and Cleland received his cab-call number from the uniformed starter and joined the glittering stream which carried him resistlessly with it through the gates and presently landed him somewhere in a seat, set amid a solidly packed tier of gaily-costumed people.
An immense sound of chatter and laughter filled the vast place, scarcely subdued by the magic of a huge massed orchestra.
The Garden had been set to represent Mount Olympus; white pigeons were flying everywhere amid flowers and foliage; the backdrop was painted like a blue horizon full of rosy clouds, and the two entrances were divided by a marble-edged pool in which white swans sailed unconcerned and big scarlet gold-fish swam in the limpid water among floating blossoms.
But he had little time to gaze about through the lilac-haze of tobacco smoke hanging like an ?gean mist across the dancing floor, for already boy trumpeters, in white tunics and crowned with roses, were sounding the flourish and were dragging back the iris-hued hangings at either entrance.
The opening pageant had begun.
From the right entrance came the Greek gods and heroes – Zeus aloft in a chariot, shaking his brazen thunder bolts; Athene in helmet and tunic, clutching a stuffed owl; Astarte very obvious, long-legged and pretty; Mars with drawn sword and fiery copper armour; Hermes wearing wings on temples and ankles and skilfully juggling the caduceus, Aphrodite most casually garbed in gauze, perfectly fashioned by her Maker and rather too visible in lovely detail.
Eros, very feminine too, lacked sartorial protection except for a pair of wings and a merciful sash from which hung quiver and bow. In fact, it was becoming startlingly apparent that the artists responsible for the Ball of All the Gods scorned to conceal or mitigate the classical and accepted legends concerning them and their costumes – or lack of costumes.
Fauns, dryads, nymphs, satyrs, naiads, bacchantes poured out from the right entrance, eddying in snowy whirlpools around the chariots of the Grecian gods; and the influence of the Russian ballet was visible in every lithely leaping figure.
Contemporaneously, from the left entrance, emerged the old Norse gods: Odin, shaggy and fully armed; Loki, all a-glitter with dancing flames; Baldin the Beautiful, smirking; Fenris the Wolf; Frija, blond and fiercely beautiful – the entire Norse galaxy surrounded by skin-clad warriors and their blond, half-naked mates.
The two processions, moving in parallel lines along the north and south tiers of boxes, were overlapping and passing each other now, led in a winding march by trumpeters; and all the while, from either entrance new bevies of gods and immortals were emerging – the deities of Ancient Egypt moving stiffly in their splendid panoply; the gods of the ancient Western World led by the Holder of Heaven and Hiawatha, and followed by the Eight Thunders plumed in white escorting the Lake Serpent – a young girl, lithe and sinuous as a snake and glittering from head to foot, with the serpent spot on her forehead.
Ancient China, in bewildering silks, entered like a moving garden of flowers; then India came in gemmed magnificence led by the divine son of Suddhodana.
He bore the bow of black steel with gold tendrils – the Bow of Sinhah?nu. He was dressed as the Prince Siddhartha, in the garb of a warrior of Oudh. Bow and sabre betrayed the period – the epoch of his trial against all comers to win the S?kya girl Yas?dhara.
As he passed, Cleland, leaning forward, scanned the splendid and militant figure intently; and recognized Oswald Grismer under the glimmering dress of the young Buddha militant.
To left and right of the youthful god advanced two girls, all in relieved stiff gold from the soles of their up-turned sandals to the fantastic pagoda peak of their head-dresses.
They wore golden Burmese masks; their bodies to the girdles were covered with open-work golden filigree; from the fantastic pagoda-like shoulder-pieces gold gauze swept away like the folded golden wings of dragon-flies; golden bangles and bells tinkled on wrist and ankle.
With slim hands uplifted like the gilded idols they represented, the open eye painted in the middle of each palm became visible. Around them swirled a dazzling throng of Nautch girls.
Suddenly they flung up their arms: the stiff gold masks and body-encasements cracked like gilded mummy cases and fell down clashing around their naked feet, and from the cold, glittering chrysalids stepped out two warm, living, enchantingly youthful figures, lithe and supple, saluting the Prince Siddhartha with bare arms crossed above their breasts.
To one, representing his mother, Maya, he turned, laying the emblems of temporal power at her feet. And, in her, Cleland recognized Helen Davis.
But his eyes were for the other – the S?kya girl Yas?dhara in gold sari and chuddah, her body clasped with a belt of emeralds and a girdle of the same gems tied below her breasts.
The young Lord Buddha laid the living Rose of the World in her hands. She bent her head and drew it through her breast-girdle. Then, silk-soft, exquisite, the S?kya maid lifted her satin-lidded eyes, sweeping the massed audience above as though seeking some one. And Cleland saw that her eyes were lilac-grey; and that the girl was Stephanie.
Suddenly the massed orchestras burst into an anachronistic two-step. The illusion was shattered; the ball was on! Assistants ran up and gathered together the glittering d?bris and pushed chariot, papier mach? elephant and camel and palanquin through the two entrances; god seized goddess, heroes nabbed nymphs; all Olympus and the outlying suburban heavens began to foot it madly to the magic summons of George Cohan.
Under the blaze of lights the throng on the dancing floor swirled into glittering whirlpools and ripples, brilliant as sunset on a restless sea. The gaily costumed audience, too, was rising everywhere and leaving seats and stalls and boxes to join the dancing multitudes below.
Before he descended, Cleland saw Grismer and Stephanie dancing together, the girl looking up over her shoulder as though still searching the tiers of seats above for somebody expected.
Before he reached the floor he began to meet old friends and acquaintances, more or less recognizable under strange head-dresses and in stranger raiment.
He ran into Badger Spink, as a fawn in the spotted skin of a pard, his thick hair on end and two little horns projecting.
"Hello," he said briefly; "you back? Glad to see you – excuse me, but I'm chasing a little devil of a dryad – "
He caught sight of her as he spoke; the girl shrieked and fled and after her galloped the fawn, intent on capture.
Clarence Verne, colourless of skin in his sombrely magnificent Egyptian dress, extended an Egyptian hand to him – the hand he remembered so well, with its deep, pictographic cleft between forefinger and thumb.
"When did you come back, Cleland?" he inquired in that listless, drugged voice of his. "To-day? Hope we'll see something of you now… Do you know that Nautch girl – the one in orange and silver? She's Claudia Gwynn, the actress. She hasn't got much on, has she? Can the Ball des Quat'z beat this for an unconcerned revelation of form divine?"
"I don't think it can," said Cleland, looking at a bacchante whose raiment seemed to be voluminous enough. The only trouble was that it was also transparent.
"Nobody cares any more," remarked Verne in his drowsy voice. "The restless sex has had its way. It always has been mad to shed its clothes in public. First it danced barefooted, then it capered barelegged. Loie, Isadora and Ruth St. Denis between 'em started the fashion; Bakst went 'em one better; then society tore off its shoulder-straps and shortened its petticoats; and the Australian swimming Venus stripped for the screen. It's all right; I don't care. Only it's a bore to have one's imagination become atrophied from disuse… If I can find a girl thoroughly covered I'd be interested."
He sauntered away to search, and Cleland edged around the shore of the dancing floor, where the flotsam from the glittering maelstrom in the centre had been cast up.
Threading his way amid god and goddess, nymph and hero, he met and recognized Philip Grayson, one of his youthful masters at school – a tall, handsome figure in Greek armour.
"This is nice, Cleland," he said cordially. "Didn't know you were back. Quite a number of your old school fellows here!"
"Oswald Grismer – "
"I saw him."
"Did you run across Harry Belter?"
"No," exclaimed Cleland, "is he here?"
"Very much so. Harry is always in the thick of things artistic. How goes literature with you?"
"I came back to start things," said Cleland. "How does it pan out with you?"
"Well," said Grayson, "I write things that are taken by what people call the 'better class' magazines. It doesn't seem to advance me much."
"Cheer up. Try a human magazine and become a best seller," said Cleland, laughing.
And he continued his search for Stephanie.
There was a crush on the floor – too many dancing in the beginning – and all he could do was to prowl along the side lines. In a lower-tier box he noticed a fat youth, easily recognizable as Bacchus. His wreath of wax grapes he wore rakishly over one eye; he sat at a table with several thirsty dryads and bestowed impartial caresses and champagne. Occasionally he burst into throaty song in praise of the grape.