The Restless Sex
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She nodded; and he went on about the business of breakfast. But had now no appetite.
There was one thing, Cleland soon found out, against which he was helpless. Stephanie frequented Grismer at any hour of the day and evening that her fancy prompted.
This perplexed him and made him sullen; but when he incautiously started to remonstrate with her one evening her surprise and anger flashed like a clear little flame, and she explained very clearly what was the essence of personal liberty, and that the one thing she would not tolerate from him or anybody else was any invasion of her freedom of thought and action.
Silenced, enraged, and humiliated at the rebuke he had retired to his studio to sulk like Achilles – a sullen mourner at the bier of love. For he fully and firmly determined to eradicate this girl from his life and devote it to scourging the exasperating sex of which she was a beautiful but baffling member.
The trouble with Stephanie, however, was that she could not seem to see the tragedy in his life or understand that a young man desired to suffer nobly and haughtily and at his own leisure and convenience.
For there came a knock at his door after his second day of absenting himself, and when he incautiously opened it, she marched in and took him gaily into her unembarrassed arms and bestowed upon his astonished countenance a hearty, wholesome and vigorous smack. Moreover, she laughed and jeered and tormented and poked merciless fun at him until she had badgered and worried and hectored and beaten the sulkiness out of him. Then she admonished him:
"Don't ever do it again!" she said. "We are free, you and I. What we are to each other alone concerns us, not what we may choose to do or be to others."
"You don't care what I do, Steve," he said.
"I care what you do to me!"
"How I behave otherwise doesn't concern you?"
"No. It would be an impertinence for me to meddle. For," she added in smiling paraphrase:
to other girls?"
"Do you really mean that it wouldn't make any difference to you what I do? Suppose I take you at your word and become enamoured of some girl and devote myself to her?"
"You mean a nice girl, don't you?" she inquired.
"Any old kind."
She considered the matter, surprised.
"I couldn't interfere with your personal liberty," she concluded, " – whatever you choose to do."
"How would you feel about my frequenting some pretty studio model, for example?"
"I haven't the least idea."
"It wouldn't affect you one way or the other, then?"
"It ought not to – provided you are always nice to me."
"That," he exclaimed, "is a cold-blooded, fishy creed!"
"That's the creed of tolerance, Jim."
"All right. Live up to it, then. And I'll try to, too," he added drily. "Because, sometimes when you're off, God knows where, with Grismer, I feel lonely enough to drift with the first attractive girl I come across."
"Why don't you?" she asked, flushing slightly.
"The reason I haven't," he said, "is because I'm in love with you."
She was standing with head bent, but now she looked up quickly.
"You adorable infant," she laughed."What a child you really are, after all! Come," she added mischievously, "let's kiss like good children and let the gods occupy themselves with our future. It's their business, not ours. I'm glad you think you're in love with me. But, Jim, I'm in love with life. And you're such an important part of life that, naturally, I include you!"
She bent forward and touched his lips with hers, daintily, deftly avoiding his arms, her eyes gay with malice.
"No," she laughed, "not that, if you please, dear friend! It rumples and raises the deuce with my hair and gown. But we are friends again, aren't we, Jim?"
"Yes," he said in a low voice, " – if you can give me no more than friendship."
"It's the most wonderful thing in the world!" she insisted.
"You've read that somewhere."
"You annoy me, Jim! It is my own conclusion. There's nothing finer for anybody – unless they want children. And I don't."
Neither did he. No young man does. But what she said struck him as unpleasantly modern.
He met Grismer here and there in the artistic channels of the city; often in Stephanie's studio, frequently in other studios, and occasionally amid gatherings at restaurants, theatres, art galleries.
At first he had been civil but cool, avoiding any t?te-?-t?te with his old school-fellow. But, little by little, he became aware of several things which slightly influenced his attitude toward Grismer.
One thing became plain; the man had no intimates. There was not a man Cleland met who seemed to care very much for Grismer; he seemed to have no frank and cordial friendships among men, no pals. Yet, he was considered clever and amusing where people gathered; he interested men without evoking their personal sympathy; he interested women intensely with his unusual good looks and the light, elusive quality of his intelligence.
Always amiably suave, graceful of movement, alert and considerate of feminine fancies, moods and caprices, he was welcomed everywhere by them in the circles which he sauntered into. But he was merely accepted by men.
So, in spite of his resentment at what Grismer had done, Cleland felt slightly sorry for this friendless man. For Grismer's was a solitary soul, and Cleland, who had suffered from loneliness enough to understand it, gradually became conscious of the intense loneliness of this man, even amid his popularity with women and their sympathetic and sentimental curiosity concerning him.
But no man seemed to care for closer intimacy with Grismer than a friendly acquaintanceship offered. There was something about him that did not seem to attract or invite men's careless comradeship or confidence.
"It's those floating golden specks in his eyes," said Belter, discussing him one day with Cleland. "He's altogether too auriferous and graceful to be entirely genuine, Cleland – too easy and too damned bland. Poor beggar; have you noticed how shabby and shiny he's getting? I guess he's down and out for fair financially."
Cleland had noticed it. The man's linen was visibly frayed. His clothes, too, betrayed his meagre circumstances, yet he wore them so well, and there was such a courtly indifference in the man, that the shabby effect seemed due to a sort of noble carelessness.
Cleland had never called on Grismer. He had no inclination to do so, no particular reason except that Grismer had invited him several times. Yet, an uneasy curiosity lurked within him concerning Grismer's abode and whether Stephanie, always serenely unconventional, ever went there.
He didn't care to think she did, yet, after all, the girl was this man's legal wife, and there was no moral law to prevent her going there and taking up her abode if she were so inclined.
Cleland never asked her if she went there, perhaps dreading her reply.
As far as that was concerned, he could not find any of his friends or acquaintances who had ever been in Grismer's lodgings. Nobody even seemed to know exactly where they were, except that Grismer lived somewhere in Bleecker Street and never entertained.
At times, when Stephanie was not to be found, and his unhappy inference placed her in Grismer's company, he felt an unworthy inclination to call on Grismer and find out whether the girl was there. But the impulse was a low one, and made him ashamed, and his envy and jealousy disgusted him with himself.
Besides, his state of mind was painfully confused and uncertain in regard to Stephanie. He was in love with her, evidently. But the utter lack of sentimental response on her part afforded his love for her no nourishment.
He traversed the entire scale of emotions. When he was not with her he often came to the exasperated conclusion that he could learn to forget her; when he was with her the idea seemed rather hopeless.
The unfortunate part of it seemed to be that, like his father's, his was a single-track heart. He'd never been in love, unless this was love. Anyway, Stephanie occupied the single track, and there seemed to be no switches, no sidings, nothing to clear that track.
He was exceedingly miserable at times.
However, his mind was equipped with a whole terminal full of tracks and every one was busy in the service of his profession.
For a month, now, he had been installed in his studio-apartment on the top floor. He picked up on Fourth and on Madison Avenues enough preciously rickety furniture to make him comfortable and drive friends to distraction when they ventured to trust themselves to chair or sofa.
But his writing table and corner-chair were solid and modern, and he had half a dozen things under construction – a novel, some short stories, some poems which he modestly mentioned as verses.
Except for the unexplored mazes in which first love had involved him he was happy – exceedingly happy. But, to a creative mind, happiness born of self-expression is a weird, uncanny, composite emotion, made up of ecstatic hope and dolorous despair and well peppered with dread and confidence, cowardice and courage, rage and tranquillity; and further seasoned with every devilish doubt and celestial satisfaction that the heart of a writer is heir to.
In the morning he was certain of himself. He was the captain of his destiny; he was the dictator of his inspiration, equipped with the technical mastery that his obedient thoughts dare not disobey.
By afternoon the demon Doubt had shaken his self-confidence, and Fear peered at him between every line of his manuscript, and it was a case of Childe Roland from that time on until the pencil fell from his unnerved fingers and he rose from his work satiated, half-stunned, not knowing whether he had done well or meanly. Vaguely he realized at such moments that, for such as he, a just appraisal of his own work would never be possible for him – that he himself would never know; and that what men said of it – if, indeed, they ever said anything about his work – would never wholly convince him, never entirely enlighten him as to its value or its worthlessness.
That is one of the penalties imposed upon the creative mind. It goes on producing because it must. Praise stimulates it, blame depresses; but it never knows the truth.
Toward the end of May, one afternoon, Stephanie came into his studio, seated herself calmly in his chair, and picked up his manuscript.
"It's no good," he said, throwing himself on an antique sofa which just endured the strain and no more.
She read for an hour, her grey eyes never leaving the written pages, her pretty brows bent inward with the strain of concentration.
He watched her, chin on hand, lying there on the sofa.
But the air was mild and languorous with the promise of the coming summer; sunshine fell across the wall; the boy dozed, presently, and after a while lay fast asleep.
She had been gone for some time when he awoke. As he sat up, blinking through the late afternoon sunshine, a pencilled sheet of yellow manuscript paper fluttered from his breast to the floor.
It happened one day late in May that Cleland, desiring local accuracy of detail in a chapter of his brand new novel, put on his hat and walked to Washington Square and across it, south, into the slums.
New leaves graced the trees in the park; spring flowers bloomed around the fountain, and the grass was rankly fragrant where it had just been mowed.
But he left the spring freshness behind him when he entered that sad, dingy, swarming region to the south, where the only clean creature seemed to be the occasional policeman in his new summer tunic, sauntering aloof amid the noise and wretchedness and the foul odours made fouler by the sunshine.
Cleland presently found the squalid street which he wished to describe in convincing detail, and stood there on the corner in the shelter of a tobacconist's awning making preliminary mental notes. Then, as he fished out note-book and pencil, intent on professional memoranda, he saw Grismer.
The man wore shabbier clothes than Cleland had ever before seen him wear; he was crossing the filthy street at his usual graceful and leisurely saunter, and he did not see Cleland under the awning.
There was a chop-suey restaurant opposite, a shabby, disreputable, odoriferous place, doubly repulsive in the pitiless sunshine. And into this sauntered Grismer and disappeared.
The slight shock of the episode remained to bother Cleland all the morning. He kept thinking of it while trying to work; he could not seem to put it from his mind and finally threw aside his manuscript, took his hat and stick, and went out with the intention of lunching.
It was nearly lunch time, but he did not walk toward the cream-coloured Hotel Rochambeau, with its green awnings and its French flag flying. He took the other way, scarcely realizing what he meant to do until he turned the corner into Bleecker Street.
He found the basement he was in search of presently; two steps down, an area gate and bell encrusted with rust, and a diseased and homeless cat dozing there in patient misery.
"You poor devil," he said, offering a cautious caress; but the gaunt creature struck at him and fled.
He rang. Jangling echoes resounded from within. Two negro wenches and a Chinaman surveyed him from adjoining houses. He could smell a sour stench from the beer saloon opposite, where a fat German beast was washing down the sidewalk with a mop.
"Hello, Cleland. This is very nice of you. Come in!" said a pleasant voice behind him, and, as he turned, Grismer, in shabby slippers and faded dressing-gown, opened the iron wicket.
"I hadn't called," said Cleland a little stiffly, " – so I thought I'd drop in for a moment and take you out somewhere to lunch."
Grismer smiled his curious, non-committal smile and ushered him into a big, whitewashed basement, with a screen barring the further end and quite bare except for a few bits of furniture, some plaster casts, and half a dozen revolving tables on which stood unfinished studies in clay and wax.
Cleland involuntarily glanced about him, then went over and politely examined the studies in clay.
"I've a back yard, too," said Grismer, "where I work in good weather. The light in here isn't particularly good."
For the wretchedness of his quarters he made no further apology; he spoke in his easy, amiable way and entirely without embarrassment, standing beside Cleland and moving with him from one study to another.
"They're just as clever as they can be," said Cleland, " – infernally clever, Grismer. Are they commissions?"
"I'm sorry to say they are not," replied Grismer with a smile.
"But a man who can do this work ought never to want for commissions," insisted Cleland.
"I'm exceedingly glad you like my work," returned Grismer pleasantly, "but as for orders – " he shrugged – "when I didn't need them they came to me. But, Cleland, when the world learns that a man needs anything it suddenly discovers that it doesn't need him! Isn't it funny," he added good-humouredly, "that prosperous talent is always in demand, always turning down work which it has no time to do; but the same talent on its uppers is universally under deep suspicion?"
He spoke lightly, impersonally, and without the slightest trace of bitterness. "Sit down and light one of your own cigarettes," he said. "I've only pipe-tobacco, and you probably wouldn't care for it."
Cleland seated himself in the depths of a big, threadbare arm-chair.
Grismer said with a smile:
"No use informing you that I'm obliged to live economically. Models are expensive; so is material. Therefore, I live where I can afford both, and a roof to cover them… And do you know, Cleland, that after all it doesn't matter much where one sleeps – " he made a slight gesture toward the screen at the end of the room. "I used to think it did until I had to give up a place of my own full of expensive and beautiful things.
"But it really doesn't matter. The main idea is to be free – free of debt, free of expensive impedimenta which cause one anxiety, free from the importunities and restrictions of one's friends." He laughed and dropped one long leg over the other.
"I've niggers and Chinamen for neighbours. They cause me no inconvenience. It's rather agreeable than otherwise to sit here and work, or lounge about and smoke, wondering whether a commission is already on its way or whether it has not yet even taken shape in the brain of some person unknown who is destined by fate some day to exchange his money for my bronze or marble… It's an amusing game, Cleland, isn't it? – the whole affair of living, I mean… Not too unpleasant, not too agreeable… But if one's heart-action were not involuntary and automatic, do you know, if it lay with me I'd not bother to keep my heart ticking – I'd be too lazy to wind it up."
He stretched himself out in his chair gracefully, good-humoured, serenely amused at his own ideas.
"Did you have a good time abroad?" he inquired.
"Yes… When you get on your feet you ought to go to Paris, Grismer."
"Yes, I know." He looked humorously at his well-shaped feet stretched out before him in shabby slippers. "Yes; it's up to my feet, Cleland. But they're a wandering, indifferent couple, inclined to indolence, I fear… Is your work getting on?"
"I'm busy… Yes, I think it's taking shape."
He looked up at Grismer hesitatingly, frankly troubled. "Grismer, we were school-mates… I wouldn't wish you to think me impertinent – "
"Go ahead, Cleland."
"Are you quite sure?"
"I'm sure of you," returned Grismer, with a singular smile. "I know you pretty well, Cleland. I knew you in school, in college… We fought in school. You were civil to me at Harvard." He laughed. "I've always liked you, Cleland – which is more than you can say about me."
Cleland reddened, and Grismer laughed again, lightly and without effort:
"It's that way sometimes. I think that you are about the only man I have ever really liked. You didn't know that, did you?"
"Well, don't let it worry you," added Grismer, smiling. "Go on and say what you were about to say."
"It was – I was merely wondering – whether you'd take it all right if – " He began again from another angle: "I've a country place – up in the Berkshires – my father's old place. And I thought that a fountain – if you'd care to design one – "
Grismer had been watching him with that indefinable smile in his golden eyes, which perplexed men and interested women, but now he rose suddenly and walked to the barred windows and stood there with his back turned, gazing out into the area. After an interval he pivoted on his heels, sauntered back and seated himself, relighting his pipe.
"All right," he said very quietly. "I'll do your fountain."
Cleland drew a breath of relief. "If you like," he said, "come up with me to Runner's Rest in June and look over the garden. There ought to be a pool there; there are plenty of springs on the mountain to feed a fountain by gravity. I think it would be fine to have a pool and a fountain in the old garden. Is it understood that you'll do it for me?"
"Yes… I don't wish to be paid."
"Good Lord! You and I are professionals, Grismer, not beastly amateurs. Do you think I'd write for anybody unless I'm paid for it?"
Grismer's eyes held a curious expression as they rested on him. Then his features changed and he smiled and nodded carelessly:
"I'll do your fountain on your own terms. Tell me when you are ready."
"Won't you change your mind and lunch with me somewhere?"
"Thanks, no." Grismer also had risen, and the two men confronted each other for a moment in silence.
Then Grismer said:
"Cleland, I think you're the only man in the world for whom I have any real consideration. I haven't much use for men – no delusions. But it always has been different about you – even when we fought in school – even when I used to sneer at you sometimes… And I want, somehow, to make you understand that I wish you well; that if it lay with me you should attain whatever you wish in life; that if attainment depended upon my stepping aside I'd do it… That's all I can say. Think it over and try to understand."
Cleland, astonished, looked at him with unconcealed embarrassment.
"You're very kind," he said, "to feel so generously interested in my success. I wish you success, too."
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