The Restless Sex
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"Harry Belter!" cried Cleland.
"Hey! Who?" demanded Bacchus, leaning over the edge of the box, his glass suspended. "No! It isn't Jim Cleland! I won't believe it! It's only a yearned-for vision come to plague and torment me in my old age – !" He got up, leaned over and seized Cleland by his silken sabre-belt:
"Jim! It is you! To my arms, old scout – !" embracing him vociferously. "Welcome, dear argonaut! Ladies! Prepare to blush and tremble with pleasurable emotion!" he cried, turning to his attendant dryads. "This is my alter ego, James Cleland – my beloved comrade in villainy – my incomparable breaker of feminine hearts! You all shall adore him. You shall dote upon him. Ready! Attention! Dote!"
"I'm doting like mad," said a bright-eyed dryad, looking down invitingly at the handsome young fellow. "Only if he's a Turk I simply won't stand for a harem!"
"In the Prophet's Paradise," said Cleland, laughing, "there's no marriage or giving in marriage. Will you take a chance, pretty dryad? All the girls are on an equal footing in the Paradise of Mahomet, and we Caliphs just saunter from houri to houri and tell each that she's the only one!"
"Saunter this way, please," cried another youthful dryad, adjusting the wreath of water-lilies so that she could more effectively use her big dark eyes on him.
"They're from the new show – 'Can You Beat It!' – just opened to record business. Better pick one while the picking's good. Come on up!"
But Cleland merely lingered to pay his compliments a few moments longer, then, declining to enter the box and join Belter in vocal praise of the grape, and eluding that gentleman's fond clutch, he dodged and slipped away to continue his quest of the silken, slender S?kya girl somewhere engulfed amid all this glitter, surging, beating noisily around him.
Frequently, as he made his devious way forward, men and women of the more fashionable and philistine world recognized and greeted him; he was constantly stopping to speak to acquaintances of what used to be the saner sets, renew half-forgotten friendships, exchange lively compliments and gay civilities.
But he failed to detect any vast and radical difference between the world and the three-quarter world. The area in square inches of bare skin displayed by a young matron of his own sort matched the satin nakedness of some animated ornament from the Follies.
As he stood surveying the gorgeous throng he seemed to be subtlely aware of a tension, an occult strain keying to the breaking point each eager, laughing woman he looked at. The scented atmosphere was heavy with it; the rushing outpour of the violins was charged with it; it was something more than temporary excitement, more than the reckless gaiety of the moment; it was something that had become part of these women – a vast, deep-bitten restlessness possessing them soul and body.
The aspiring quest for the hitherto unattainable, the headlong hunt for happiness, these were human and definite and to be comprehended: but this immense, aimless, objectless restlessness, mental or spiritual, whichever it might be, seemed totally different.
It was like a blind, crab-like, purposeless, sidling migration in mass of the prehistoric female race – before it had created the male for its convenience – wandering out into and over-running the primeval wastes of the world, swarming, crawling at random – not conscious of what it desired, not knowing what it might be seeking, aware only of the imperative urge within it which set it in universal motion.Only to weary, after a few million years of subdivision and self-fertilization, and casually extemporize the sterner sex. And settle again into primeval lethargy and the somnolent inertia of automatic reproduction.
Watching the golden human butterflies whirling around him swept into eddies by thunderous gusts of music, he thought, involuntarily of those filmy winged creatures that dance madly in millions and millions over northern rivers and are swept in sparkling clouds amid the rainbow spray of cataracts out into the evening splendour of annihilation.
He met a pretty woman he knew – had thought that he had known once – and reddened slightly at the audacity of her Grecian raiment. Her husband – a Harvard man he had known – was with her, in eye-glasses and a Grecian helmet – Ajax the Greater, he explained.
They lingered to exchange a word; she beat time to the music with sandalled foot, a feverish brilliancy in eyes and cheeks.
"The whole world," said Cleland, "seems strung too tightly. I noticed it abroad, too. There's a tension that's bound to break; the skies of the whole earth are full of lightning. Something is going to blow up."
"Hope it won't be the stock market," said the man. "I don't get you, Cleland – you always were literary."
"He means war," said his wife, restlessly fanning her flushed cheeks. "Or suffrage. Which do you mean, Mr. Cleland?"
"You've got all you want – practically – haven't you?" he asked.
"Practically. It's a matter of a year or so – the vote."
"What will you do next?" he inquired, smiling.
"Heaven knows, but we've simply got to keep doing something," she said. "What a ghastly bore to attain everything! If you men really love us, for goodness' sake keep on tyrannizing over us and giving us something to fight for!"
She laughed and blew him a kiss as her husband encircled her Grecian waist and steered her out into the fox-trotting throng, her flimsy draperies fluttering like the wind-blown tunic of a Tanagra dancing figure.
The stamp and jingling din of Nautch girls rang in his ears as he turned away and looked out over the shifting crowd.
Everywhere he recognized people he had met or heard about, men eminent or notorious in their vocations, actors, painters, writers, architects, musicians – men of science, lawyers, promoters, officers of industry commissioned and non-commissioned, the gayer element of the stage were radiantly in evidence, usually in the dancing embrace of Broad and Wall Streets; artistic masculine worth and youth pranced proudly with femininity of social attainment; the beautiful unplaced were there in daring deshabille, captivating solid domestic character which had come there wifeless and receptive.
Suddenly he saw Stephanie. She was leaning back against the side of the arena, besieged by a ring of men. Gales of laughter swept her brilliant entourage of gods and demons, fauns and heroes, all crowding about to pay their eager court. And Stephanie, laughing back at them from the centre of the three-fold circle, her arms crossed behind her, stood leaning against the side of the amphitheatre under a steady rain of rose petals dropped on her by some young fellows in the box above her.
Through this rosy rain, through the three-fold ring of glittering gods, she caught sight of Cleland – met his gaze with a soft, quick cry of delight.
Out through the circle of chagrined Olympians she sprang on sandalled feet, not noticing these protesting suitors; and with both lovely, rounded arms outstretched, her jewelled hands fell into Cleland's, clasping them tightly in an ecstacy of possession.
"I couldn't find you," she explained breathlessly. "I was so dreadfully afraid you hadn't come! Isn't it all magnificent! Isn't it wonderful! Did you see the pageant? Did you ever see anything as splendid? Slip your arm around me; we can walk better together in this crush – " passing her own bare arm confidently over his shoulder and falling into step with him.
"I saw you in the pageant," he said, encircling with his arm the silken body-vestment of her slender waist.
"Did you? Did you see Helen and me come out of our golden chrysalids? Was it pretty?"
"Charming and unexpected. You are quite the most beautiful thing on the floor to-night."
"Really, Jim, do you think so? You darling boy, to say it! I'm having a wonderful time. How handsome you are in your dress of a young oriental warrior!"
"I'm the fourth Caliph, Ali," he explained. "I had this costume made in Paris."
"It's bewitching, Jim. You are good looking! – you adorable brother of mine. Do you like my paste emeralds? You don't think I'm too scantily clad, do you?"
"That seems to be the general fashion – "
"Oh, Jim! There are lots of others much more undressed. Besides, one simply has to be historical and accurate or one is taken for an ignoramus. If I'm to to impersonate the S?kya girl, Yass?dhara, before she became Lord Buddha's wife, I must wear what she probably wore. Don't you see?"
"Perfectly," he said, laughing. "But you of the artistic and unconventional guilds ought to leave the audacious costumes to your models. But, of course, that's too much to ask of you."
"Indeed it is!" she said gaily. "If some of us think we're rather nicely made why shouldn't we dare a little artistically – in the name of beauty and of art? … Oh, Jim! – it's the tango they're beginning. Will you! – with me?"
They danced the exquisitely graceful measure together, her little golden-sandalled feet flashing noiselessly through the intricate steps, lingering, swaying, gliding faultlessly in unison with his as though part of his own body.
The fascinating rhythm of the Argentine music throbbed through the perfumed air; a bright, whispering wilderness of silk and jewels swayed rustling all around them; bare arms and shoulders, brilliant lips and eyes floated through their line of dreary vision; figures like phantoms passed in an endless rosy chain through the lustrous haze of motion.
They danced together whatever came; Stephanie, like a child fearful of being abandoned, kept one slim jewelled hand fast hold of his sleeve or girdle when they were not dancing. To one and all who came to argue or present fancied prior claims she turned a deaf ear and laughing lips, listening to no pleading, no claims.
She threatened Harry Belter with the flat of her palm, warning him indignantly when he attempted a two-step, by violence; she closed her ears to Badger Spink, who danced with rage in his goat-skins; she waved away Verne in all his Egyptian splendour; she let her grey eyes rest in an insolent stare at two of Belter's dryads who encircled Cleland's waist with avowed intent to make him their prisoner and dedicate him to vocal praise of the vine.
Then there was a faint clash and flash of iridescence, and the Prince Siddhartha confronted her, golden-eyed, golden-skinned, golden-haired, magnificent in his golden vestments.
"Oswald!" she cried. "Oh, I am glad. Jim! You and Oswald will be friends, won't you? You're such dears – you simply must like each other!"
They shook hands, looking with curious intentness at each other.
"I've always liked you, Cleland," said Grismer gracefully. "I don't think you ever cared for me very much, but I wish you might."
"I have found you – agreeable, Grismer. We were friendly at school and college together – "
"I hope our friendliness may continue."
"I – hope so."
"Drop in whenever you care to, Cleland, and talk things over. We've a lot to say to each other, I think."
"Thanks." … He looked hard at Grismer. "All right; I'll do it."
"I've a kennel of sorts in Bleecker Street. But you might be interested in one or two things I'm working on. You see," he added with careless good humour, "I'm obliged to work, now."
Cleland said in a low voice:
"I'm sorry things went wrong with you."
"Oh, they didn't. It was quite all right, Cleland. I really don't mind. Will you really drop in some day soon?"
Dancing began again. Grismer stepped back with the easy, graceful courtesy that became him, conceding Stephanie to Cleland as a matter of course; and the latter, who had been ready to claim her, found himself disarmed in advance.
"Is it Grismer's dance, Steve?" he asked.
"I promised him. But, Jim, I'm afraid to let you go – "
They all laughed, and she added:
"When a girl gets a man back after three long years, is it astonishing that she keeps tight hold of him?"
"You'd better dance with her, Cleland," said Grismer, smiling.
But Cleland could not accept a gift from this man, and he surrendered her with sufficient grace.
"Jim!" she said frankly. "You're not going after that dryad, are you? She's exceedingly common and quite shamelessly under-dressed. Shall I introduce you to a nice girl – or do you know a sufficient number?"
"You know," he said, laughing, "that I ought to play my part of Fourth Caliph and go and capture a pretty widow – "
"Certainly," he said tranquilly; "didn't Ali take prisoner Ayesha, the youthful widow of Mohammed? I'll look about while you're dancing – "
"I don't wish you to!" she exclaimed, half vexed, half laughing. "Oswald, does he mean it?"
"He looks as though he does," replied Grismer, amused. "There's a Goddess of Night over there, Cleland – very pretty and very unconcealed under a cloud of spangled stars – "
"Oswald! I don't wish him to! Jim! Listen to me, please – !" for he had already started toward the little brunette Goddess of Night. "We have box seven! Please remember. I shall wait for you!"
"Right!" he nodded, now intently bent on displeasing her; a little excited, too, by her solicitude, yet sullenly understanding that it sprang from no deeper emotion than her youthful heart had yet betrayed for him. No woman ever let a man go willingly, whether kin or lover – whether she had use for him or not.
Stephanie, managing to keep him in view among the dancers, saw the little Goddess of Night, with her impudent up-tilted nose, floating amid her scandalously diaphanous draperies in his arms through a dreamy tango, farther and farther away from her.
Things went wrong with her, too; she dropped her emerald girdle and several of the paste stones rolled away; the silk of her body-vest ripped, revealing the snowy skin, and she had to knot her gold sari higher. Then the jewelled thong of her left sandal snapped and she lost it for a moment.
"The devil!" she said, slipping her bare foot into it and half skating toward the nearest lower-tier box.
"There he is over there," remarked Grismer, indicating a regulation Mephistopheles, wearing a blood-red jerkin laced with a wealth of superfluous points. "Wait; I'll borrow a lace of him."
The devil was polite and had no objection to being despoiled; and Grismer came back with a chamois thong and mended her sandal for her while she sat in their box and watched the tumult surging below.
He chatted gaily with her for a while, leaning there on the box's edge beside her, but Stephanie had become smilingly inattentive and preoccupied, and he watched her in silence, now, curiously, a little perplexed by her preoccupation. For it was most unusual for her to betray inattention when with him. It was not like her. He could not remember her ever being visibly uninterested in him – ever displaying preoccupation or indifference when in his company.
However, the excitement of seeing her brother again so unexpectedly accounted for it no doubt.
The excitement and pleasure of seeing her —brother! … A slight consciousness of the fact that there was no actual kinship between this girl and Cleland passed through his mind without disturbing his tranquillity. He merely happened to think of it… He happened to recollect it; that was all.
"Shall we sit out this dance? Your sandal string will hold."
"I don't know," she said. "Who is that dancing with Helen? Over there to the left – "
"I see her. I don't know – oh, yes – it's Phil Grayson."
"Is it? I wonder where Jim went with that woman! … I'm horribly thirsty, Oswald."
"Shall we have some supper?"
"Where is it? Oh, down there! What a stuffy place! It's too awful. Couldn't you get something here?"
He managed to bribe one perspiring and distracted waiter, and after a long while he brought a tray towering with salads, ices and bottles.
Helen and Philip Grayson came back and the former immediately revealed a healthy appetite.
"Don't you want anything to eat, Steve?" she inquired. "This shrimp salad isn't bad."
"I'm not hungry."
"You seem to be thirsty," remarked Helen, looking at the girl's flushed face and her half-filled wine glass. "Where is Jim?"
"Some girl of sorts whom he picked up," said Stephanie; and the pink flush in her face deepened angrily.
"Was she worth it?" inquired Helen, frankly amused.
Stephanie's cheeks cooled; she replied carelessly:
"She had button eyes and a snub nose and her attire was transparent – if that interests you." She rested her elbow on the edge of the box, supporting her chin on her cupped palm.
They were dancing again. Grayson came and took out Helen; a number of men arrived clamouring for Stephanie. She finally went out with Verne, but not liking the way he held her left him planted and returned to the box where a number of hilarious young men had gathered.
Harry Belter said:
"What's the trouble, Steve? I never saw you glum before in all my life!"
"I'm not glum," she said with a forced little laugh, "I'm thirsty, Senior Bacchus! Isn't that enough to sadden any girl?"
Later Helen, returning from the floor, paused beside Stephanie to bend over her and whisper:
"Harry Belter is behaving like a fool. Don't take anything more, Steve."
The girl lifted her flushed face and laughed:
"I feel like flinging discretion into the 'fire of spring,'" she said. "That's where most of these people's clothing has disappeared, I fancy." Excitement burned in her pink cheeks and wide grey eyes, and she stood up in the box looking about her, poised lightly as some slim winged thine on the verge of taking flight.
Grismer rose too and whispered to her, but she made a slight, impatient movement with her shoulders.
"Won't you dance this with me?" he repeated, touching her arm.
"No," she said under her breath. "You annoy me, Oswald."
"Please don't be quite so devoted… I'm restless."
She turned and started to leave the box. The others were leaving too, for dancing had begun again. But at the steps she parted with the jolly little company, they descending to the floor, she turning to mount the steps alone.
"Where on earth are you going, Steve?" called back Helen, halting on the steps below.
"I want to see the floor from the top gallery!" replied Stephanie, without turning her head; and she ran lightly upward, her bells and bangles jingling.
Half way up she turned her head. She had not been followed, but she saw Grismer below looking up, watching her flight. And she made no sign of recognition, no gay gesture of amity and adieu; she turned her back and sped upward through the clamour and hazy brilliancy, turned into the first corridor, and vanished like a firefly in a misty thicket.
At three in the morning the Ball of the Gods was in full and terrific blast and still gathering momentum. A vast musical uproar filled the Garden; the myriad lights glittered like jewels through a fog; the dancing floor was a bewildering, turbulent whirlpool of colour.
Few if any of the dancers had reached the point of satiation; a number, however, had attained the state of saturation.
As far as Cleland could see the only difference between this and a more miscellaneous assemblage seemed to be that the majority of people here knew how to ignore unpleasant lapses in others and how to efface themselves if surprised into accidental indiscretion.
With Lady Button-eyes on his arm he had threaded his way into the supper-room, where the gods, demi-gods and heroes were banqueting most riotously.
It was becoming very rapidly a dubiously mixed affair; Bacchus, with his noisy crew, invaded the supper-room and pronounced Cleland's snub-nosed, button-eyed goddess "tray chick," and there arose immediately a terrific tumult around her – gods and satyrs doing battle for her; but she persisted in her capricious fancy for Cleland. He, however, remained in two minds; one was to abandon Button-eyes, retire and find Stephanie again, in spite of the ever-smoldering resentment he felt for Grismer; the other was to teach himself without loss of time to keep away from her; school himself to do without her; preoccupy himself casually and recklessly with anything that might aid in obliterating his desire for her companionship – with this snub-nosed one, for example.
The desire to see Stephanie remained, nevertheless, sometimes fiercely importunate, sometimes sullenly persistent – seemingly out of all proportion to any sentiment he had ever admittedly entertained for her – out of proportion, also, to his sulky resentment at the folly she had committed with Oswald Grismer.
For, after all, if she ultimately married Grismer in the orthodox way her eccentric pre-nuptial behaviour was nothing more serious than eccentric. And if she didn't, then it meant annulment or divorce; and he realised that nobody outside of the provinces paid any attention to such episodes nowadays. And nobody cared what clod-hoppers thought about anything.
His button-eyed goddess had a pretty good soprano voice and she was using it now, persuaded into a duet by Belter. Cleland looked at her sideways without enthusiasm, undecided, irritated and gloomy. She was Broadway vulgarity personified.
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