The Restless Sex
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"You don't understand me after all," he said pleasantly. "I was afraid you wouldn't."
"You are offering me your friendship, as I take it," said Cleland awkwardly. "Isn't that what you meant?"
"Yes. And other things…"
He laughed with a slight touch of malice in his mirth:
"There's such a lot yet left unsaid between you and me, which you and I must say to each other some day. But there's plenty of time, Cleland… And I shall be very glad to design and execute a fountain for your garden."
He offered his hand; Cleland took it, the embarrassed flush still staining his face.
"Yes," he said, "there is a matter that I wish to talk over with you some day, Grismer."
"I know… But I think we had better wait a while… Because I wish to answer everything you ask; and for the present I had rather not."
They walked slowly to the area gate and Grismer unlocked it.
"I'm glad you came," he said. "It's a bit lonely sometimes… I have no friends."
"When you feel that way," said Cleland, "drop in on me."
And that was all. Cleland went away through the ill-smelling streets, crossed the sunny square, and walked thoughtfully back to his own studio.
"He's a strange man," he mused, " – he was a strange boy, and he's grown into a curious sort of man… Poor devil… It's as though something inside him is lacking – or has been killed… But why in God's name did Steve marry him unless she was in love with him? … It must be… And his pride won't let him take her until he can stand on his own feet… When I dig that pool I'll dig a pit for my feet… A grave for a fool…"
He unlocked his studio and went in.
"I'm done with love," he said aloud to himself.
The jingle of the telephone bell echoed his words and he walked slowly over to the table and detached the receiver.
"Is it you, Steve?"
"Yes. Would you like some tea about five?"
"All right. I've had no lunch and I'll be hungry."
"You know, Jim, I'm not going to provide a banquet for you. Why don't you go out and take lunch?"
"I forgot it. I don't feel like work. Shall I come down and talk to you now?"
"I'm going out to take a dancing lesson in a few moments. I'll talk to you while I'm putting on my hat."
He said "All right," took his hat and stick and went downstairs again.
She opened the door for him, offering him her cool, slim hand, then she opened a hat-box and lifted from it a hat.
"I believe I'll join the Russian ballet," she said. "I do dance very nicely. You should hear what the ballet master says. And Miss Duncan and Miss St. Denis watched me yesterday, and they were very complimentary and polite."
"Nonsense. It's good exercise, but it would be a dog's life for you to lead, Steve. Where is Helen?"
"Out hunting a model for her Pegasus. She asked me to pose for the mounted figure, but I haven't time.I can fancy myself, in a complete state of nature, scrambling onto some rickety old livery hack – " She threw back her head and laughed, then inspected her new hat, and, facing the studio mirror, pinned it to her chestnut hair.
"Do you like it, Jim?"
"Fine. You make all hats look well."
"Such a nice, polite boy! So well brought up! But unfortunately I heard you say the same thing to Helen… Where have you been, Jim? I called you up an hour ago."
"I went to see Grismer," he said, coolly ignoring her perverse and tormenting humour.
"You did? Bless your dear, generous heart!" cried the girl. "Do you know that if it were in me to be sentimental over you, what you did would start me? Continue to behave like a real man, dear friend, and I'll be head over heels in love before I know it!"
"Why?" he asked, conscious again of her gaily derisive mood and not caring for it.
"Because," she said, "you have acted like a man in calling on Oswald, and not like a spoiled boy. You resented Oswald's marrying me. You have been sullen and suspicious and aloof with him since you came back. I know Oswald better than you do. I know that he has felt your attitude keenly, though he never admitted it even to me.
"He is a man of few friends, admired but not well liked; he is wretchedly poor, fiercely proud, sensitive – "
"Did you think he wasn't?" she asked. "He is painfully sensitive; pitiably so. I think women divine it, and it attracts them."
"He hasn't the reputation of being very thin-skinned," remarked Cleland drily.
"The average man who is sensitive would die to conceal it. You ought to know that, Jim; it's your business to dissect people, isn't it?"
She thrust a second pin through the crown of her hat and adjusted it deftly.
"Anyway," she said, "you are a nice, polite boy to go to see him, and you have made me very happy. Good-bye! I must run – "
"Have you lunched?"
"No, but I'm going to."
"With whom?" he asked incautiously.
"You're usually just going out to lunch or dine with some man," he said sullenly.
"I like men," she said, smiling at him.
"What you probably mean is that you like admiration."
"I do. It's agreeable; it's sanitary; it's soothing. It invigorates one's self-confidence and self-respect. And it doesn't disarrange one's hair and rumple one's gown. Therefore, I prefer the undemonstrative admiration of a man to the indiscreet demonstrations of a boy."
"Do you mean me?" he asked, furious.
But she ignored the question:
"Boys are funny," she said, swinging her velvet reticule in circles. "Any girl can upset their equilibrium. All a girl has to do is to look at a boy sideways – the way Lady Button-eyes looked at you yesterday afternoon – "
"At the Rochambeau. And you got up and went over and renewed your friendship with her. Helen and I saw you."
"I was merely civil," he said.
"So was she. She fished out a card and wrote on it. I don't know what she wrote."
"She wrote her telephone call. There isn't the slightest chance of my using it."
"He certainly is the nicest, politest boy in all Manhattan, and sister is very, very proud of him. Good-bye, James – "
She offered her lips to him audaciously, bending forward on tip-toe, both hands clasped behind her. But her grey eyes were bright with malice.
"Nice, polite boy," she repeated. "Kiss little sister."
"No," he said gloomily, "I'm fed up on sisterly kisses – "
"You insulting wretch! Do you mean you won't? Then you shall– !"
She started toward him, wrath in her eyes, but he caught her wrists and held her.
"You're altogether too well satisfied with yourself," he said. "You've no emotions inside your very lovely person except discreet ones. Otherwise, you've got the devil inside you and it's getting on my nerves."
"Jim! You beast!"
"Yes, I am. What of it? Beasts have emotions. Yours have either been cultivated out of you or you were born without any. I'm glad I am part beast. I'm glad you know it. The rest of me is human; and the combination isn't a very serious menace to civilization. But the sort of expurgated girl you are is!"
"Don't you think I'm capable of any deep emotions?" she asked. The smile had died on her lips.
"Maybe. I don't know."
"Who should, if you don't?"
"Your husband, perhaps."
"Jim! I told you not to call him that!"
"Well, a spade is a spade – "
"Do you mean to be offensive?"
"How can that offend you?"
She released her wrists and shot a curious, inexplicable look at him.
"I don't understand you," she said. "You can be so generous and high-minded and you can be so unkind and insolent to me."
"Yes. You meant it insolently when you spoke of Oswald as my husband. You've done it before, too. Why do you? Do you really want to hurt me? Because you know he isn't my husband except by title. He may never be."
"All right," he said. "I'm sorry I was offensive. I'm just tired of this mystery, I suppose. It's a hopeless sort of affair for me. I can't make you love me; you're married, besides. It's too much for me – I can't cope with it, Steve… So I won't ever bother you again with importunities. I'll go my own way."
"Very well," she said in an even voice.
She nodded to him and went out, saying as she passed:
"There'll be tea at five, if you care for any." And left him planted.
Which presently enraged him, and he began to pace the studio, pondering on the cruelty, insensibility and injustice of that devilish sex which had created man as a convenience.
"The thing to do," he said savagely to himself, "is to exterminate the last trace of love for her, tear it out, uproot it, trample on it without remorse – "
The studio bell rang. He walked to the door and opened it. A bewilderingly pretty girl stood there.
"Miss Davis?" she inquired sweetly. "I have an appointment."
"Come in," said Cleland, the flush of wrath still on his countenance.
The girl entered; he offered her a chair.
"Miss Davis happens to be out at the moment," he said, "but I don't believe she'll be very long."
"Do you mind my waiting?" asked the pretty girl.
"No, I don't," he said, welcoming diversion. "Do you mind my being here? Or are you going to put me out?"
She looked surprised, then she laughed very delightfully:
"Of course not. Miss Davis and I have known each other for a long while, and I owe her a great deal and I am devoted to her. Do you think I'd be likely to banish a friend of hers? Besides, I'm only one of her models."
"A model?" he repeated. "How delightful! I also am a model – of good behaviour."
They both laughed.
"Does it pay?" she inquired mischievously.
"No, it doesn't. I wish I had another job."
"Why not take the one I've just left?"
"What was it?"
"I was dancing at the Follies."
"All right. Will you try me out?"
"I'll turn on that music-box."
The girl laughed her enchanting little laugh, appraised him at a glance, then turned her pretty head and critically surveyed the studio.
"I believe," she said, "I'm to pose for Miss Davis seated on a winged horse. Isn't that exciting?"
"You'd be delightful on a winged horse," he said.
"Do you think so?"
"I suspect it. What did you do in the Follies?"
"Nothing very interesting. Have you seen the Follies?"
"You ought to know I haven't," he said reproachfully. "Do you suppose I could have forgotten you?"
She rose and dropped him a Florodora curtsey. They were getting on very well. She glanced demurely at the music box. He jumped up and turned it on. The battered disc croaked out a tango.
"Shall I take up those rugs?" he inquired.
"What on earth would Miss Davis say if she found us dancing?"
"She isn't here to say anything. Shall I?"
"Very well… I'll help you."
They dragged the rugs aside.
The studio was all golden with the sun, now, and the brilliant rays bathed them as she laid her gloved hand in his and his arm encircled her waist.
She was a wonderful dancer; her supple grace and professional perfection enchanted him.
From time to time he left her to crank up the music-box; neither of them tired. Occasionally she glanced at her jewelled wrist-watch and ventured to voice her doubts as to the propriety of continuing in the imminence of Miss Davis's return.
"Then let's come up to my studio," he said. "I've a music-phone of sorts. We can dance there until you're tired, and then you can come down and see Miss Davis."
She demurred: the music-box ran down with a squawk.
"Shall we take one more chance here?" he asked.
"No, it's too risky… Shall I run up to your place for just one little dance?"
"Come on!" he said, taking her hand.
They went out and he closed the door. Then, hand-in-hand, laughing like a pair of children, they sped up the stairs and arrived breathless before his door, which he unlocked. And in another minute they were dancing again while a scratched record croaked out a fox-trot.
"I must go," she said, resting one gloved hand on his arm. "I'd love to stay but I mustn't."
"First," he said, "we'll have tea."
But presently they were seated on his desk, a plate of sweet biscuits between them, their glasses of sherry touching.
"Unknown but fascinating girl," he said gaily, "I drink to your health and fortune. Never shall I forget our dance together; never shall I forget the charming stranger who took tea with me!"
"Nor shall I forget you! – you very nice boy," she said, looking at him with smiling intentness.
"Would it spoil if we saw each other again?"
"You know that such delightful encounters never bear repetition," she answered. "Now I'm going. Farewell!"
She laughed at him, touched her glass with her lips, set it aside, and slipped to the floor.
"Good-bye!" she said. He caught her at the door, and she turned and looked up gravely.
"Don't spoil it," she whispered, disengaging herself.
So he released her, and she stretched out her hand, smiled at him, and stepped out. The music-phone continued to play gaily.
A girl who was coming upstairs saw her as she left Cleland's studio; and, as the pretty visitor sped lightly past her, the girl who was mounting turned and watched her. Then she resumed her ascent, came slowly to Cleland's open door, stood there resting a moment as though out of breath.
Cleland, replacing the rugs, glanced up and caught sight of Stephanie; and the quick blood burnt his face.
She came in as though still a trifle weary from the ascent. Neither spoke. She glanced down at the two empty wine glasses on his desk, saw the decanter, the biscuits and cigarettes. The music-phone was expiring raucously.
"Who is that girl?" she asked in an even, colourless voice.
"A girl I met."
"Do you mind telling me her name?"
"I – don't know it," he said, getting redder.
"Oh. Shall I enlighten you?"
"She's Mary Cliff, of the Follies. I've seen her dance."
"Really," he said carelessly.
Stephanie leaned against the desk, resting one hand on it. An odd sense of mental fatigue possessed her; things were not clear in her mind; she was not very sure of what she was saying:
"I came up to say – that I'm sorry we quarrelled… I'm sorry now that I came. I'm going in a moment… You've already had tea, I see. So you won't care for any more."
After a flushed silence, he said:
"Did you have a successful lesson, Steve?"
"I've had two – lessons. Yes, they were quite – successful."
"You seem tired."
"No." She turned and walked to the door. He opened it for her in silence.
"Good night," she said.
Cleland's unhappy interpretation of the episode was masculine and therefore erroneous – the interpretation of a very young man whose reverence for the restless sex might require revision some day or other unless he died exceedingly young. For he concluded, now, that he had thoroughly disgusted Stephanie Quest; first by his vulgar flirtation with Lady Button-eyes, then by losing his temper and admitting to her his own odious materialism; and, furthermore and flagrantly, by his hideous behaviour with a pretty girl whose name even he had not known when he entertained her at his impromptu th?-dansant.
He saw himself quite ruined in the unemotional grey eyes of a girl who, herself, was so coldly aloof from the ignoble emotions lurking ever and furtively in the masculine animal.
He had had little enough chance with Stephanie, even when his conduct had been exemplary. Now he was dreadfully certain that his chances were less than none at all; that he had done himself in. What had he to hope of her now?
To this unconventional yet proud, pure-hearted girl had been offered the very horrid spectacle of his own bad temper and reprehensible behaviour. And, although there had been no actual harm in it, she could never, never understand or forgive it. Never!
Her virginal ears had been insulted by the cynical avowal of his own masculine materialism. Of the earth, earthy, he had vaunted himself in his momentary exasperation – "of humanity, a shamelessly human example."
With her own incredulous, uncontaminated eyes she had seen him pocket Lady Button-eye's telephone number. Her shrinking ears had heard the mutilated record in his music-phone dying out in a tipsy two-step; her outraged gaze had beheld a perfectly strange young girl's gaily informal exit from his own bachelor apartment, where sherry still stood in both glasses and the rugs lay scattered in disorder against the wall. Elimination was naturally the portion he had to expect. And he gloomily schooled himself to endure annihilation.
According to his philosophy there was nothing else on earth to do about it. Doubtless she'd ultimately forgive him, but her respect he couldn't hope for at present; and as for any deeper sentiment, if ever there had been any hope in his heart that he might one day awaken it, now he knew it was wriggling in its death-throes, making him, by turns, either frightfully unhappy or resentfully reckless.
The hopeless part of it was that, unlike weaker men, he had no desire to drown sorrow in any irregular and unworthy fashion.
Many men of many minds turn to many things seeking the anodyne in one form or another – the nepenthe of forgetfulness, rarer than the philosopher's stone.
Neither wine nor the dreary quest for heart-ease among frailer companions ever appeals to any but weak minds. And the boy, not knowing what to do, turned to his work with a renewed energy resembling desperation.
It is the only hope for ultimate anesthesia.
Also, he took to prowling by night, being too unhappy to remain in his studio so near to Stephanie.
He prowled about Broadway and Long Acre with Badger Spink, whose restless cleverness and self-absorption ended by wearying him; he prowled with Clarence Verne one night, encountering that strange sphinx by accident, and strolling with him at hazard through the purlieus of Chelsea. Both men seemed deeply preoccupied with problems of their own, and though they knew each other only slightly they maintained the reticence of intimacy – an odd assumption, as Cleland thought afterward. Yet, one of them was very sick for love, and the other very sick of it; and, besides, there roved with them a third and unseen companion, through the crooked, lamp-lit streets, whose shrouded arm was linked in Verne's. And perhaps that accounted for the sombre silence which brooded between these men in trouble.
Verne said at parting – and gazing absently at nothing while he spoke:
"The tragedy of civilization – of what the world calls civilization! – that is the most terrible of all, Cleland. That is the real and only hell. Not the ruthless eruptions of barbarism; not the momentary resurgence of atavistic violence – of red-blooded rapine and lust – but the ordered, lawful, stealthy, subtle horrors of civilization: they slay men's souls."
"I don't get you, Verne."
"No, Cleland. But somebody else will – somebody else will get me – very soon, now… Good-bye."
A few days later Cleland prowled with Harry Belter, intent upon supper somewhere in the outer marches of the town.
For an episode had occurred that shook them both with the most sobering and distressing jar that youth experiences in fullest mental and physical vigour.
"I don't see how a man can kill himself," said Cleland. "I don't see why he can't go somewhere else and cure himself of his unhappiness. Travel, change, new faces – "
"Perhaps he wants to be rid of faces," muttered Belter.
"There are wonderful wildernesses."
"Perhaps he's too tired to admire 'em. Perhaps he's half dead for sleep."
"You talk as though you sympathized and understood, Harry."
"You! The indefatigable optimist! You, the ever-welcome, the gay consoler, the irrepressible spirit among us!"
"If I didn't play that r?le I'd do what Clarence Verne did!"
"Long ago," added Belter.
"For God's sake, why? I never dreamed – "
"You were away, three years, having a good time abroad, weren't you? How should you know what happened to others?"
"Did something happen to you, Harry?"
"It did. If you wish to know exactly what, I'll tell you what happened to me was a woman. Now you know something that nobody else knows – except that demon and myself."
"But such things – "
"No. Such things destroy, ultimately. I'll die of her, one day."
But Belter, the jester, laughed a terrifying laugh and sauntered into the open door of the restaurant which they had walked a mile or two to find.
"It's a low pub," he remarked, "and suitable to my mind." They seated themselves at a cherry table. One or two newspaper men nodded to Belter. A confidence man, whispering to a painted mulatto girl, turned to scrutinize him; a ruffianly bar-keeper saluted him cordially.
There was a grill glowing beyond the bar. A waiter, chewing a tooth-pick, came up and stood leaning on their table with both hairy hands spread flat on the polished top.
"Well, gents, what is it?" he asked hoarsely.
They gave their order. Then Belter, leaning forward and planting both elbows on the table, said in a low voice:
"They call me a caricaturist, but, by God, Cleland, I'm a realist! I've learned more about women by caricaturing them than I ever read in their smooth countenances. They are caricatures, in their secret souls – every one of them; and when I exaggerate a weak point and ignore everything but the essential character lines and contours, by jingo, Cleland, I've discovered 'em – exposed 'em as they really are! – distorted caricatures of human beings."
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