The Restless Sex
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Badger Spink dropped onto a chair on the other side of him:
"Who's your transparent lady friend?" he inquired lazily. "She looks like a gutter-angel. Who is the depraved little beast?"
"I don't know – some actress, I believe – Sonia something-or-other. Do you want her?"
"Thanks. What does she represent? A Kewpie behind a pane of glass?"
"She's a goddess of sorts, I believe. This is getting rather raw, isn't it, Spink?"
Spink yawned and gazed leisurely about him, the satyr's horn emerging from his thick, wavy pompadour hair, accentuating his clever, saturnine features. His expression was slightly Satanic always.
"Yes," he said, "it's turning out rather rough. What do you think of this sort of thing in New York, Cleland? We're drifting toward Babylon. That's the trend since the dance craze swept this moral nation off its moral feet into a million tango joints."
"There's something the matter with us, that's sure," said Cleland. "This sort of thing doesn't belong in the new world."
"It's up to our over-rated American women," sneered Spink. "Only a few years ago we were slobbering over them, worshipping them, painting pictures of 'em – pictures influenced by the French naturalistic school – a lot of cow-faced American females suckling their young. Everybody was yelling for the simple life, summoning the nation back to nature, demanding that babies be produced in every family by the dozen, extolling procreation and lauding the American woman. That's the sort of female we celebrated and pretended to want. Now, look what we've got! – a nation of dancing dolls! A herd of restless, brainless, aggressive, impudent women proclaiming defiance and snapping their fingers at us!
"I tell you there burns here in the Garden to-night something more than the irresponsible gaiety of a lot of artists and Philistine pleasure-seekers. The world is on the verge of something terrifying; the restlessness of a universal fever is in its veins. Our entire human social structure is throbbing with it; every symptom is ominous of social collapse and a complete disintegration of the old order of civilization!"
"What's your other name, Spink? – Jeremiah?" asked Cleland, laughing.
"No. I'm merely on my favourite topic. Listen to me, my young friend; all England faces strikes and political anarchy in Ireland and India; the restless sex is demanding its rights in London and menacing the Empire. France, betrayed by one of the restless ones, strangling in the clutch of scandal, is standing bewildered by the roar of the proletariat; Russia seethes internally, watching the restless Empress and her accursed priest out of millions of snaky, Asiatic eyes; Portugal has just fallen crashing into fragments around a terrified Queen; China splits open from end to end and vomits forth its dynasty on the tomb of the dead Dowager; Austria watches for the death of an old, old widower – an Imperial mummy long since dead in mind and spirit.Germany, who uses the lesser sex for breeding only, stares stolidly out of pig-like eyes at the Imperial litter of degenerates and defectives dropped with stolid regularity to keep the sty-supply of Hohenzollerns unimpaired. Only radicals like myself feel the cataclysmic waves deep under the earth, symptomatic, ominous of profound and vital readjustments already under way.
"And here in our once great Republic of the West, the fever of universal unrest is becoming apparent in this nation-wide movement for suffrage. State after state becomes a battle-ground and surrenders; accepted standards are shattered, the old social order and balance between the sexes – all the established formalism and belief of a man-constructed status – totters as door and gate and avenue and byway are insanely flung open to the mindless invasion of the restless sex! Don't stop me, Cleland; I am magnificent to-night. Listen! I tell you that political equality, equal opportunity, absolute personal liberty are practically in sight for women! What more is left? Conscious of the itching urge of its constitutional inclination to fuss and fidget, the restless sex, fundamentally gallinaceous, continues to wander on into bournes beyond its ken, hen-like, errant, pensively picking at the transcendentally unattainable, but always in motion – motion as mechanical and meaningless as the negative essence of cosmic inertia! … Now, I'm through with you, Cleland. Thanks for listening. I don't think I want your goddess, after all. She looks too much like a tip-up snipe!"
And he took himself off, yawning.
The rushing din of the orchestra far below came up softened to Stephanie's ears, where she stood at the rail of the topmost gallery and looked down into the glimmering depths of the Ball of all the Gods.
Her jewelled fingers rested on the rail, her slender body pressed against it; she stood with bent head, gazing down into the vortex, pensive, sombrely preoccupied with an indefinable anger that possessed her.
The corridor behind her was full of shadowy figures scurrying to hazardous rendezvous. She was vaguely aware of encounters and pursuits; stifled laughter, sudden gusts of whispering, hurried adieux, hasty footfalls and the ghostly rustle of silks in flight.
She turned restlessly and went up into the corridor. A dryad was performing flip-flaps there and a gale of laughter and applause arose from her comrades watching her in a semi-circle.
The Olympians, too, all seemed to have gathered there for a frolic – Zeus, Hermes, the long-legged Astarte, the amazingly realistic Aphrodite, and Eros, more realistic still – all clasping hands and dancing a ring-around-a-rosy while Bacchus and Ariadne in the centre performed a breakdown which drew frantic shouts of approval from the whirling ring.
Then, in this hilarious circle, Stephanie caught sight of the snub-nose and transparent raiment of the button-eyed Goddess of Night, and next her, hand clasping hand, she recognized Cleland as another link in the rapidly rotating ring.
Aphrodite and Eros, hand locked in hand, were singing the song they had made so popular in "The Prince of Argolis" early in the winter:
Breathless with laughter the Grecian gods galloped round and round in a dizzy circle, flushed faces flashed past Stephanie, flying draperies and loosened hair fluttered and streamed and glimmered in confused sequence before her angry eyes.
Suddenly the mad dance broke up and flew into fragments, scattering its reeling, panting devotees into prancing couples in every direction.
And straight into this wild confusion stepped Stephanie, her pretty eyes brilliant with wrath, her face a trifle pale.
He let go of Lady Button-eyes in astonishment and turned around.
Stephanie said very coolly:
"If you're going to raise the devil, raise him with me, please!"
Lady Button-eyes was not pleased and she showed it by stamping, which alone had sufficiently fixed her level if she had not also placed both hands on her hips and laughed scornfully when Cleland took leave of her and walked over to Stephanie.
"Where are the others?" he inquired, rather red at being discovered with such a crew. "You're not alone, are you, Steve?"
"Not now," she said sweetly; and passed her left arm through his and clasped her right hand over it. "Now," she said with an excited little laugh, "I am ready to raise the devil with you. Take me wherever you like, Jim."
The insulted gods gazed upon her with astonishment as she lifted her small head and sent an indifferent glance like an arrow at random among them. Then, not further noticing them, and absolutely indifferent to the button-eyed one, she strolled leisurely out of Olympus with her slightly disconcerted captive and disappeared from their view along the southern corridor. But once out of their range of vision her hot wrath returned.
"It was abominable," she said in a low, tense voice, " – your going off that way, when I told you the whole evening would be spoiled for me without you! I am hurt and angry, Jim."
But his smouldering wrath also flickered into flame now.
"You had Grismer, didn't you!" he said. "What do you care whether I am with you or not?"
"What do you mean? Yes, of course I had him. What has that to do with you?"
He replied with light insolence:
"Nothing. I'm not your husband."
His words fell like a blow: she caught her breath with the hurt of them; then:
"Is that why you have avoided me?" she demanded in a tone of such concentrated passion that the unexpected flare-up startled him. It surprised her, too: for, all at once, in her heart something contracted agonizingly, and a surge of furious resentment flooded her, almost strangling speech.
"Why are you indifferent? Why are – are you unkind?" she stammered. "I've just found you again after all these years, haven't I? What do other people matter to us? Why should Oswald interfere between you and me? You and I haven't had each other for years! I – I can't stand it – to have you unkind – indifferent – to have you leave me this way when I want you – so desperately – "
"I didn't leave you," he retorted sullenly. "You went away with – the man you married – "
"Don't speak of him that way!" she interrupted hotly. "Nobody speaks of that affair at all!"
"Why not? You did marry him, didn't you?"
"What of it!" she flamed back. "What has that to do with you and me! Why do you refer to it? It's my personal affair, anyway!"
He turned toward her, exasperated:
"If you think," he said, "that your behaviour with Grismer means nothing to me, you'd better undeceive yourself! … Or I'll do it for you in a way you can't mistake!"
"Undeceive me?" she repeated uneasily. "How do you mean?"
"By making a fight for you myself," he said, "by doing my best to get you back!"
"I don't know what you mean, Jim," she repeated, her grey eyes intent on his flushed face… "Do you believe you have been insulted by what I did? Is that what you mean?"
He did not answer. They walked on, slowly pacing the deserted corridor. Her head was lowered now; her lips a trifle tremulous.
"I – didn't suppose you'd take – what I did —thatway," she said unsteadily. "I – respect and love you… I supposed I was at liberty – to dispose of – myself. I didn't imagine you cared – very much – "
Suddenly he freed his arm from her clasped fingers and passed it around her waist; and she caught her breath and placed her hand tightly over his to hold it there.
"You adorable boy," she whispered, "am I forgiven? And you do care for me, don't you, Jim?"
"Care for you!" he repeated in a low, menacing voice. "I care for nobody else in the world, Steve!"
She laughed happily, yielding confidently to his embrace, responding swiftly and adorably and with a frank unreserve that told a more innocent story than his close caress and boyish heart on fire confirmed.
And, for the moment, she let him have his way, gaily enduring and humorously content with a reconciliation somewhat exaggerated and over-demonstrative on his part.
But presently his lips on her flushed face, on her hair, on her throat, disconcerted her, and her own lips parted in dismayed and laughing protest at an ardour entirely new to her.
He merely kissed her fragrant mouth into silence, looking steadily into her grey eyes now widening with perplexed and troubled inquiry.
"I love you," he said. "I want you back. Now, do you understand, Steve? I love you! I love you!"
Confused, crushed hotly in his embrace, she stared blankly at him for one dizzy instant; then, in silence, she twisted her supple body backward and aside, and with both nervous hands broke loose the circle of his arms.
They were both rather white now; her breath came and went irregularly, checked in her throat with a little sob at intervals. She leaned back against the wall, one jewelled hand against her breast, looking aside and away from where he stood.
"I told you," he said, unsteadily.
She remained silent, keeping her gaze resolutely averted.
"You understand now, don't you?" he asked.
Then he caught her in his arms again, and she threw back her lovely head, looking at him with frightened eyes, defending her lips with a bare, jewelled arm across them.
He laughed breathlessly and kissed the partly clenched fingers.
"Don't," she whispered, her grey eyes brilliant with fear.
"Do you understand that I am in love with you, Steve?"
"Let me go, Jim – "
"Don't kiss me – that way – "
"Do you believe me?"
"I don't want to! – " Suddenly she turned terribly white in his arms, swayed a moment against him. He released her, steadied her; she passed one arm through his, leaning heavily on him.
"Are you faint, Steve?" he whispered.
"A – little. It's nothing. The air here is stifling… I'm tired." … She dropped her head against his shoulder. Her lids were half closed as they descended the steps, he guiding her.
It seemed to her an interminable descent. She felt as though she were falling through space into a glittering, roaring abyss. In their box sat Helen and Grayson, gossiping gaily together and waiting for another dance to begin. Cleland warned Stephanie in a whisper, and she lifted her head and straightened up with an effort.
She said mechanically:
"I'm going home; I'm very tired."
Helen and Grayson rose and the former came toward her inquiringly.
"Jim will take me back," she said. "Don't let me disturb your pleasure. And tell Oswald I was very sleepy… And not to come to the studio for a day or two. Good night, dear."
She made a humorously tired little gesture of farewell to Grayson also, and, taking Cleland's arm again, sauntered with him toward the lobby.
"Get your overcoat and my wraps," she said in a colourless, even voice. "I have a car outside. Here's the call-check. I'll wait over there for you."
Her car, a toy limousine, was ultimately found. Cleland redeemed his overcoat and her wrap. When he came back for her she smiled at him, suffered him to swathe her in the white silk cloak, and, laying her dainty hand lightly on his sleeve, went out with him into the lamp-lit grey of dawn.
"You are feeling better," he said as they seated themselves in the limousine and the little car rolled away southward.
"Yes. It was the stifling atmosphere there, I suppose."
"It was horribly close," he assented.
They remained silent for a while. Then, abruptly:
"Have I made you angry, Steve?" he asked.
She looked up and laughed:
"You adorable boy," she said.
"You don't mind if I'm in love with you?" he asked.
"I haven't any mind. I can't seem to think… But I don't think you'd better kiss me until I collect my senses again… Please don't, Jim."
They became silent again until the car drew up before her door. She had two keys in her cloak pocket; she paused to give the chauffeur an order, turning to ask Cleland whether he didn't want the car to take him to the Hotel Rochambeau.
"Thanks; it's only a step. I had rather walk."
So the car drove away; Cleland opened the front door for her, then her own studio door. She felt around the corner in the darkness and switched on the electric bulb in a standing lamp.
"Good night, Steve," he said, taking her hand in both of his.
"Good night… Unless you care to talk to me for a little while."
"It's four o'clock in the morning."
"I can't sleep – I know that."
He said in a low voice:
"Besides, I am very much in love with you. I think I had better go back."
"Oh… Do you think so?"
"I told you that I haven't recovered enough sense to think."
She crossed the threshold and walked into the studio, dropping her cloak across a chair; and presently halted before the empty fireplace, gazing into its smoke-blackened depths.
For a few moments she stood there in a brown study – a glittering, exquisite figure in the subdued light which fell in tiny points of fire on gem and ring, bracelet and girdle, and tipped the gilded sandals on her little naked feet with sparks of living flame.
Then she turned her charming young head and looked across at him where he stood on the threshold.
"What do you think?" she said. "Ought you to go?"
"I ought to. But I don't think I shall."
"No, don't go," she said with a little laugh. "After all, if we're not to remain brother and sister any longer, there's a most fascinating novelty in your being here."
He came in and closed the door. She made room for him on the sofa and he flung his coat across her cloak and seated himself.
"Now," she said, dropping one silken knee over the other and clasping her hands around it, "how much can we care for each other without being silly? You know I have a dreadful intuition that I'd better not kiss you any more. Not that I don't adore you as much as I always did – "
She turned squarely around and looked at him out of her lovely eyes:
"You took me by surprise. I didn't understand. Then, suddenly I lost my senses and became panicky. I was scared stiff, Jim – you kissed me so many times – "
He reddened and looked down. Under his eyes her bare foot hung in its golden sandal – an exquisite, snowy little foot, quite perfectly fashioned to match her hands' soft symmetry.
"If you loved me," he said, "you would not care how many times I kissed you."
"But you kept on – and you kissed my eyes and throat – "
"You wouldn't care what I did if you loved me."
"But they were unusual places to be kissed. I was scared. Did you think me ridiculous? It was rather startling, you know. It was such a complete novelty."
She admitted it so na?vely that he laughed in spite of his chagrin.
"Steve," he said, "I don't know what to do about it. I'm falling more deeply in love with you every moment; and you are merely kind and sweet and friendly about it – "
"I'm intensely interested!" she said.
"Interested," he repeated; "yes, that describes it."
"A girl couldn't help being interested when a man she had always adored as a brother suddenly takes her into his arms and kisses her in unusual places," she said, " – and does it a great number of times – "
"Probably you kept count," he said with boyish sarcasm.
She laughed outright:
"I wish I had. It was a perfectly shameless performance. If you ever do it again I shall keep count – out loud!"
"Is that all you'll do?"
"What else is there to do?" she inquired, smiling a trifle uneasily.
"You might find it in your heart to respond."
"How can my heart hold any more of you than it does and always has?" she asked with pretty impatience.
"Can't you love me?"
"I don't know how to any more than I do."
"But you did not find it agreeable when I kissed you."
"I – don't know what I felt… We always kissed." She began to laugh. "I enjoyed that; but I don't think you did, always. You sometimes looked rather bored, Jim."
"I'm getting well paid back," he said.
This seemed to afford her infinite delight; there was malice in her grey eyes now, and a hint of pretty mockery in her laughter.
"To think," she said, "that James Cleland should ever become sentimental with poor little Stephanie Quest! What an unbending! What condescension! What a come-down! Oh, Jim, if I've really got you at last I'm going to raise the very devil with you!"
"You're doing it."
"Am I? I hope I am! I mean to torment you! Why, when I think of the long, long years of childish adoration and awe – of the days when I tagged after you, grateful to be noticed, thankful when you found time for me – " She clapped her hands together delightedly, enchanted with his glum and reddening face. For what she said was the truth; he knew it, though she did not realize how true it had been – and meant merely to exaggerate.
"Also," she said, "you leave me quite alone for three whole years when you could have come back at the end of two!"
His face darkened and he bit his lip.
"You're quite right," he said in a quiet voice. "A girl couldn't very well fall in love with that sort of man."
There was a silence. She had been enjoying her revenge, but she had not expected him to take it so seriously.
He sat there with lowered head, considering, gnawing at his under-lip in silence. She had not intended to hurt him. She was inexperienced enough with him to be worried. His features seemed older, leaner, full of unfamiliar shadows – disturbingly aloof and stern.
She hesitated – the swift, confused memory of an hour before checking her for an instant, then she leaned toward him, quite certain of what would happen – silent and curious as he drew her into his arms.
She was very silent, too, listening to his impetuous, broken avowal – suffering his close embrace, his lips on her eyes and mouth and throat once more. The enormous novelty of it preoccupied her; the intense interest in his state of mind. Her curiosity held her spellbound, too, and unresponsive but fascinated.
She lay very quietly in his arms, her lovely head resting on his shoulder, sometimes with eyes closed, sometimes watching him, meeting his eyes with a faint smile.
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