Contact with him no longer frightened her. Her mind was clear, busy with this enormous novelty, searching for the reason of it, striving to understand his passion which she shyly recognized with an odd feeling of pride and tenderness, but to which there was nothing in her that responded Ц nothing more than tender loyalty and the old love she had always given him.
The grey tranquillity of her eyes, virginal and clear Ц the pulseless quiet of the girl chilled him.
"You don't love me, Steve, do you?"
"Not Ц as you Ц wish me to."
"I don't know."
"Is there any chance?"
She looked out across the studio, considering, and her grey eyes grew vague and remote.
"I don't know, JimЕ I think that something has been left out of meЕ Whatever it is. I don't know how to love Ц fall in love Ц as you wish me to. I don't know how to go about it. Perhaps it's because I've never thought about it. It's never occupied my mind."
"Then," he burst out, "how in God's name did you ever come to marry!"
She looked up at him gravely:
"That is very different," she said.
"Then you are in love with him!"
"I told you that he fascinates me."
"Is it love?" he asked violently.
"I don't know."
"You must know! You've got a mind!"
"It doesn't explain what I feel for him. I can't put it into words."
He drew her roughly to him, bent over her, looked into her eyes, and kissed her lips again and again.
"Can't you love me, Steve? Can't you?" he stammered.
"I Ц want to. I wish I did Ц the way you want me to."
"Will you try?"
"I don't know how to try."
"Do your lips on mine mean nothing to you?"
"YesЕ You are so dearЕ I am wonderfully contented Ц and not afraid."
After a moment she released herself, laughed, and sat up, adjusting her hair with one hand and resting against his shoulder.
"A fine scandal if Helen should come in," she remarked. "It's odd to think of myself as married. And that's another thing, Jim. It never occurred to me until now, but I've no business to give myself up to you as I have to-night." She leaned forward on one elbow, musing for a while, then, lifting her head with a troubled smile: "But what is a girl to do when her brother suddenly turns into her lover? Must she forbid him to kiss her? And refrain from kissing him?†Ц " She flung one arm around his neck impulsively. "I won't forbid you! I would have to if I were in love with you in the same way. But I'm not and I don't care what you do. And whatever you do, I adore anyway."
A key rattled in the lock; she sprang to her feet and went toward the door. Helen came in, and she saw Grayson and Grismer standing in the hallway.
"Come in everybody!" she cried. "Shall we all have breakfast before we part? Don't you think it would be delightful, Phil? Don't you, Oswald? And you know we could take up the rugs and dance while the coffee is boiling.
Helen and Grayson deliberately began a tango; Grismer came over to where Cleland was standing:
"They're still dancing in the Garden," he said pleasantly. "Did you and Stephanie get enough of it?"
Cleland, being young, required sleep, and it was not until noon that he awoke.
Cool-headed retrospection during tubbing and dressing increased his astonishment at the manner in which he had spent his first day in New York after the years of absence. For into that one day had been crowded a whole gamut of experience and of sensations that seemed incredible when he thought them over.
Every emotion that a young man could experience seemed to have been called into play during that bewildering day and night Ц curiosity, resentment, apprehension, anger, jealousy, love, passion. And their swift and unexpected sequence had confused him, wrought him up to a pitch of excitement which set every nerve on edge.
He could not comprehend what had happened, what he had experienced and said and done as he stood at his window looking out into the sunshine of the quiet street; and yet, just around the corner the girl who was the cause and reason of it all lay still asleep, in all probability.
Breakfast was served in his room and he ate it with a perfectly healthy appetite. Then he lighted a cigarette and walked to the window again to stare silently put across the sunny street and marshall his thoughts into some semblance of order.
The aromatic smoke from his cigarette curled against the window pane and he gazed absently through it at the vague phantom of a girl's face which memory evoked unbidden.
What had happened? Was it really love? Was it anger, wounded amour-propre, jealousy? Was it resentment and disgust at the silly, meaningless thing that one whom he had considered as his own kinswoman had done in his absence? Was it a determination to tear her loose that had started the thing Ц an unreasoning, impulsive attempt at vengeance, born of hurt pride that incited him to get her back? For the bond between her and Grismer seemed to him intolerable, hateful Ц a thing he would not endure if he could shatter it.
Why? Was it because he himself had fallen in love with a girl whom, heretofore, he had regarded with the tranquil, tolerant affection of a brother? Was it love? Was there any other name for the impulse which had suddenly overmastered him when he caught this girl in his arms, confused, frightened, stunned her with hot, incoherent declarations? Had he even really meant what he had said Ц not in the swift hurricane of passion which had enveloped him like a flame when he held her waist enlaced and the sweetness of her face and throat and hair blinded him to everything else Ц but in the cold after-light of retrospection did he now mean what he had said last night?
Or had it all been due to the place and the hour Ц the relaxing of convention in the shattering din of music and laughter Ц the whirlwind of gaiety and excitement Ц the girl's beauty Ц the sudden thrill of his contact with her? Was that what had accounted for what he had done and said?†Ц brute impulse loosed by passion born out of nothing more noble than the moment's mental intoxication Ц nothing more real than ephemeral emotion, excitement, sheer physical sensation?
It was not like him. He realized that. Hitherto his brain had been in control of his emotions. His was a clear mind, normally. Impulse seldom tripped him.
He had never been in love Ц never even tried to persuade himself that he had been, even when he had, in his boyish loneliness in Paris, built for himself a bewitching ideal out of a very familiar Stephanie and had addressed to this ideal several reams of romantic nonsense. That had been merely the safety valve working in the very full and lonely heart of a boy.
Even in the gay, ephemeral, irresponsible affairs that occurred from time to time during his career abroad Ц even when in the full tide of romantic adoration for his mundane Countess, and fairly wallowing in flattered gratitude for her daintily amused condescension, did he ever deceive himself into believing he was in love.
And now, in the lurid light of the exaggerated, bewildering, disquieting events of the preceding day and night, he was trying to think clearly and honestly Ц trying to reconcile his deeds and words with what he had known of himself Ц trying to find out what really was the matter with him.
He did not know. He knew that Stephanie had exasperated him Ц exasperated him to reckless passion Ц exasperated him even more by not responding to that passion. He had declared his love for her; he had attempted to drive the declaration into her comprehension by the very violence of reiteration. The tranquil, happy loyalty, which always had been his, was all he evoked in her for all the impulsive vows he made, for all his reckless emotion loosened with the touch of her lips Ц so hotly ungoverned when her grey eyes looked into his, honestly perplexed, sweetly searching to comprehend the source of these fierce flames which merely warmed her with their breath.
"It's a curious thing," he thought, "that a man, part of whose profession is to write about love and analyze it, doesn't know whether he's in love or not."
It was quite true. He didn't know. Accepted symptoms were lacking. He had not awakened thrilled with happiness at the memory of the night before. He awoke dazed and doubtful that all these things had happened, worried, searching in his mind for some reason for his behaviour.
And, except that a man had taken her out of his keeping, and that resentment and jealousy had incited him to recover her, and, further, in the excitement of the attempt, that he had suddenly found himself involved in deeper, fiercer emotions than he had bargained for, he could come to no conclusion concerning his actual feeling for Stephanie.
He spent the day hunting for a studio-apartment.
About five o'clock he called her on the telephone; and heard her voice presently:
"Have you quite recovered, Jim? I feel splendid!"
"Recovered? I was all right this morning when I woke up."
"I mean your senses?"
"Oh. Did you think I lost them last night, Steve?"
Her voice was very sweet but there was in it a hint of hidden laughter.
"No," he said shortly.
"Oh. Then you really were in your right senses last night?" she inquired.
"Certainly. Were you?"
"Well, for a little while I seemed to have lost the power of thinking. But after that I was intensely, consciously, deeply interested and profoundly curious." He could hear her laughing.
"Curious about what?" he demanded.
"About your state of mind, Jim. The situation was such a novelty, too. I was trying to comprehend it Ц trying to consider what a girl should do in such a curious emergency."
"Emergency?" he repeated.
"Certainly. Do you fancy I'm accustomed to such novelties as you introduced me to last night?"
"What do you think about them now?"
"I'm slightly ashamed of us both. We were rather silly, you know Ц "
"You were not," he interrupted drily.
"Is that a tribute or a reproach?" came her gay voice over the wire. "I don't quite know how to take it!"
"Reassure yourself, Steve. You were most circumspect and emotionless Ц "
"Jim! That is brutal and untrue! I was not circumspect!"
"You were the other, then."
"What a perfectly cruel and outrageous slander! You've made me unhappy, now. And all day I've been so absolutely happy in thinking of what happened."
"Is that true?" he asked in an altered voice.
"Of course it's true!"
"You just said you were ashamed Ц "
"I was, very, very slightly; but I've been too happy to be very much ashamed!"
"You darling!†Ц "
"Oh! The gentleman bestows praise! Such a kind gentleman to perceive merit and confer his distinguished approval. Any girl ought to endeavour to earn further marks of consideration and applause from so gracious a gentleman Ц "
"Steve, you tormenting little wretch, can't you be serious with me?"
"I am," she said, laughing. "Tell me what you've been doing to-day?"
"Hunting for lodgings. What have you been doing?"
"Watching Helen make a study of a horse out in the covered court. Then we had tea. Then Oswald dropped in and played the piano divinely, as he always does. Then Helen and I started to dress for dinner. Then you called. Where did you look for lodgings?"
"Oh, I went to about all the studio buildings Ц "
"Aren't you going to open the house?"
"No. It's too lonely."
"Yes," she said, "it would be too lonely. You and I couldn't very well live there together unless we had an older woman."
"So it's better not to open it until" Ц she laughed gaily Ц "you marry some nice girl. Then it will be safe enough for me to call on the Cleland family, I fancy. Won't it, Jim?"
"Quite," he replied drily. "But when I marry that nice girl, you won't have far to go when you call on the Cleland family."
"Oh, how kind! You mean to board me, Jim?"
"You know what I do mean," he said.
"I wonder! Is it really a declaration of serious and respectable intentions? But you're quite safe. And I'm afraid you know it. Tell me, did you find an apartment to suit you?"
"Why not come here? There's a studio and apartment which will be free May first. Oh, Jim, please take it! If you say so I'll telephone the agent now! Shall I? It would be too heavenly if we were under the same roof again!"
"Do you want me, Steve? After Ц and in spite of everything?"
"Want you?" He heard her happy, scornful laughter. Then: "We're dining out, Jim; but come to-morrow. I'll telephone now that you'll take the studio. May I, Jim dear?"
"Yes," he said. "And I'll come to you to-morrow."
"You angel boy! I wish I weren't going out to-night. Thank you, Jim, dear, for making me happy again."
"Indescribably. I don't think you know what your kindness to me means. It makes a different person of me. It fills and thrills and inspires me. Why, Jim, it actually is health and life to me. And when you are unkind Ц it seems to paralyze me Ц check something in my mind. I can't explain Ц "
"Could I come in for a moment now?"
"I'm dressing. Oh, Jim, I'm sorry, but I'm late as it is. You know I want you, don't you?"
"All right; to-morrow, then," he said in happy voice.
He had been sitting in his room for an hour, thinking Ц letting his mind wander unchecked.
If he were not really in love with Stephanie, how could a mere conversation over the wire with her give him such pleasure?
The day, drawing to its close without his seeing her, had seemed colourless and commonplace; but the sound of her gay voice over the wire had changed that Ц had made the day complete.
"I believe I am in love," he said aloud. He rose and paced the room in the dusk, questioning, considering his own uncertainty.
For the "novelty" Ц as Stephanie called it Ц of last night's fever had not been a novelty to her alone. Never before had he been so deeply moved, so swept off his feet, so regardless of a self-control habitual to him.
Perhaps anger and jealousy had started it. But these ignoble emotions could not seem to account for the happiness that hearing her voice had just given him.
Even the voice of a beloved sister doesn't stir a young man to such earnest and profound reflection as that in which he was now immersed, indifferent even to the dinner hour, which had long been over.
"I believe," he said aloud to himself, "that I'm falling very seriously in love with SteveЕ And if I am, it's a rather desperate outlookЕ She seemsto be in love with Grismer Ц damn him! Е I don't know how to face such a thingЕ She's married him and she doesn't live with himЕ She admits frankly that he fascinates herЕ There are women who never loveЕ I seem to want her, anywayЕ I think I doЕ It's a mess! Е Why in God's name did she do such a thing if she wasn't in love with him Ц or if she didn't expect to be? Is she in love with him? She isn't with meЕ I'm certainly drifting into love with SteveЕ Can I stop myself? Е I ought to be able toЕ Hadn't I better?"
He stood still, thinking, the street lamps' rays outside illuminating his room with a dull radiance.
Presently he switched on the light, seated himself at the desk, and wrote:
I am falling in love with you very seriously and very deeply. I don't know what to do about it.JIM.
He was about to undress and retire late that night when a letter was slipped under his door:
You sentimental and adorable boy! What is there to do? The happiest girl in New York, very sleepy and quite ready for bed, bids you good night, enchanted by your note.STEVIE.
To have returned after three years abroad and to have slipped back into the conventional life of the circles to which he had been accustomed in the city of his birth might not have been very easy for Cleland. To readjust himself among what was unfamiliar proved easier, perhaps. For his family circle existed no longer; the old servants were gone; the house had been closed for a long time now.
At his college club unfamiliar faces were already in the majority, men of his own time having moved on to the University, Union, Racquet and Knickerbocker, leaving the usual residue of undesirables and a fresh influx from his college. And he was too young in letters to be identified yet with any club which meant anything except the conveniences of a hotel.
Among friend and acquaintances of his age there had been many changes, too; much shifting and readjustment of groups and circles incident to marriages and deaths and the scattering migration ever in progress from New York.
It was an effort for him to pick up the threads again; and he did not make the effort. It was much simpler to settle down here in these quiet, old-time streets within stone's throw of the artists' quarter of the city where Stephanie lived Ц where a few boyhood friends of artistic proclivities had taken up quarters, where acquaintances were easily made, easily avoided; and where the informalities of existence made life more easy, more direct, and, alas, much more irresponsible. Chelsea, with a conscious effort and a lurking smirk, mirrored the Latin Quarter to the best of its ability.
It did pretty well. There were more exaggerations, more eccentricities, less spontaneity and less work in Chelsea than in the Latin Quarter. Too many of its nomadic denizens were playing a self-conscious part; too few of them possessed the intelligence and training necessary for self-expression in any creative profession. Otherwise, they were as emotional, as casual, as unkempt, as vain, and as improvident as any rapin of the original Latin Quarter.
Cleland met many of the elect even before he had settled down in his new studio-apartment on the top floor of the same building where Stephanie and Helen lived.
The quarter was peppered with tea-rooms and caf?s and restaurants sufficiently cheap to attract artistic youth. Also, there reigned in that section of the city a general and resolute determination to be bohemian; a number of damsels errant and transplanted, shock-headed youths cooked in their own quarters, strolled about the streets in bed-room slippers, or visited one another bare-headed and adorned with paint-smeared smocks.
And there was, of course, much deviltry with cigarettes and cheap claret in restaurant and caf? Ц frequent outbursts of horse-play and song, especially if Philistine visitors were detected in the vicinity. And New York French was frequently though briefly employed as the limited medium for exchanging views on matters important only to the inmates of Chelsea and its purlieus.
"But Washington Square bohemians are a harmless, friendly people," remarked Helen to Cleland one morning late in May, when he stopped on his way out to breakfast to watch her modelling a horse in clay. "They're like actor-folk; they live in a world entirely self-created which marvels at and admires and watches them; they pose for its benefit, playing as faithfully as they know how their chosen r?les Ц painter, writer, critic, sculptor, composer. Nobody in the outside real and busy world notices them; but they think they're under incessant and envious observation and they strut happily through the little painted comedy of life, living an unreal existence, dying undeceived. The real tragedy of it all they mercifully never suspect Ц the utter lack of interest in them taken by real people."
She went on modelling, apparently amused by her own analysis.
"Where is Stephanie?" he inquired, after a slight pause.
"Out somewhere with Oswald, I believe."
"It's rather early."
"They sometimes get up early and breakfast together at Claremont," remarked Helen, working serenely away. The freckled livery-stable lad who held the horse for her and occasionally backed him into the pose again continued to chew gum and watch the pretty sculptor with absorbed interest.
"I've got such an interesting commission," she said, wetting down her clay with a huge and dripping sponge. "It's for the new Academy of Arts and Letters to be built uptown, and my equestrian figure is to be cast in silver bronze for the great marble court."
"What is the subject?" he asked, preoccupied by what she had told him about Stephanie, yet watching this busy and efficient young girl who, with the sleeves of her blue blouse rolled up, displaying her superb young arms, stood vigorously kneading a double handful of clay and studying the restless horse with clear and very beautiful brown eyes.
"The subject? 'Aspiration.' I made some sketches Ц a winged horse taking flight upward. A nude female figure, breathless, with dishevelled hair, has just flung itself upon the rearing, wide-winged Pegasus and is sticking there like a cat to the back fence Ц hanging on tooth and nail with one leg just over and the other close against the beast's ribs, and her desperate fingers in the horse's maneЕ I don't know. It sounds interesting but it may be too violent. But I've had that idea Ц hope, aspiration, fear and determination clinging to a furious winged animal that is just starting upward like a roaring sky-rocket Ц "
She turned her head, laughing:
"Is it a rotten idea?"
"I don't know," he said absently. "It's worth trying out, anyway."