Cleland disagreed with him, gloomily, amazed at his bitterness.
"No," said Belter, "if you tell the mere truth about them they're a nuisance! We don't understand 'em. Why? There's very little to understand and that's all on the surface as plain as the nose on your face!†Ц too plain for us to notice. And you writers explore and dissect 'em, seeking deeps where there are shallows, mysteries where there are facts, subtleties where everything is obvious. They haven't much mind, they have few traits because they have precious little character. They are not like humans; they resemble Fabre's insects Ц strange, incomprehensible Martians, doing things not from intelligence, not from reason, impulse, desire, but merely from an inherited instinct that apes intelligence, that parodies passion."
"What have they done to you, Harry?"
"Nothing, in yearsЕ Because I won't let 'em. But the spectacle of the world suddenly crawling with women, all swarming restlessly over the face of the globe, not knowing why or whither Ц it appalls me, Jim. And we men continue flinging at them everything we can think of to stop them, quiet them, and keep them still Ц personal liberty, franchise, political opportunity, professional and industrial chances Ц and still they twist and wriggle and squirm and swarm over everything restlessly, slowly becoming denatured, unsexed, more sterile, more selfish, insolent, intolerable every day. They are the universal nuisance of the age; they are slowly smothering us as shifting dunes threaten the fertile plain Ц "
"For heaven's sake Ц "
"There's the unvarnished truth about woman," insisted Belter. "She's got the provocative c?linerie of a cat; the casual insouciance of a sparrow; the nesting and hatching instinct of the hen; the mindless jealousy of a Pekingese.
"The creative mind that marries one of 'em is doomed either to sterility or to anguish. Their jealousy and malice stultify and slay the male brain; there is no arguing with them because they have no real mind to appeal to, no logic, no reason. Like the horrible praying Mantis they suffer the embrace of the male and immediately begin to eat him, commencing with the head Ц "
Cleland began to laugh. His mirth, unrestrained, did not disturb Belter, who continued to eat his club sandwich and wash it down with huge draughts of Pilsner.
"Do you think I'd marry one of 'em?" he demanded scornfully. "Do you know what really happened to Clarence Verne?"
"Well, he married a dainty little thing and expected to continue earning two thousand dollars for every magazine cover he designed. And do you know what happened?"
"No, I don't."
"I'll tell you. The dainty little thing turned jealous, hired a shyster who hired detectives to follow Verne about and report to her what he did inside and outside his studio. She doped his food when she thought he had a rendezvous; she had his letters stolen. In his own world, any woman he found agreeable was cut out by his wife; if, in the jolly and unconventional fellowship of Bohemia, he ever stopped on the street to chat with a pretty girl or took one, harmlessly, to lunch or supper, or offered any of 'em tea in his studio, her detectives reported it to her and she raised hell.
"It killed spontaneity, any gaiety of heart, any incentive in Verne.
"Why didn't he divorce her if he knew of all this she was doing?"
"He had a little girl to think of. After all, Verne had lived his life. Better snuff it out that way and leave the child in decent ignorance of family dissensionЕ And that was the matter with Clarence Verne, Cleland. And I tell you that into the heart of every man who has been fool enough to marry, some canker is eating its way. There is not one woman in a million with mind enough and humanity enough to keep her husband's love Ц not one who knows enough to
'Let him alone
And he'll come home Ц '
Not one with the brains, mental resource, wisdom, to mate without becoming a parasite. And still, all over the world the asses are solemnly asking each other, 'Is marriage a failure?' Bah! The world makes me very sick!"
They went to Verne's funeral a few days later. The widow was very pretty in her deep mourning. Her little girl was with her.
But the affair was not even a nine-days' gossip in the artists' world. Verne had stalked wistfully among them for a few years, but had never been of them since his marriage: he had lived at home in one of the fashionable quarters, although his studio Ц and his heart Ц were in Chelsea.
So his well-known magazine covers were missed more than he was, and people soon ceased discussing him and his fate; and in a month nobody remembered whether it had been done with a razor or a revolver. And very few cared.
As for Cleland, he had never known Verne well, and the damnation of his taking off affected him only superficially. Besides, busy men have little time to bother about death; and Cleland was now extremely busy with his novel, which began to take definite shape and proportion under unremitting labour.
He now saw Stephanie much as usual; and the girl did not seem seriously changed toward him in behaviour. Her spirits appeared to be high always; she seemed to be always doing something interesting and delightful, dining out, going to theatres Ц though the choice was now limited, as many were already closed for the summer Ц motoring out to the country, taking her dancing and dramatic lessons, entertaining in the studio.
It is true that he seldom or never saw Stephanie alone now, but that seemed accidental, because he really had been absorbed in his work and she was usually out somewhere or other during the day. But she appeared to be cordial to him Ц just as full of gay malice and light banter as ever Ц full of undisguised interest in the progress of his work and delighted with his promise to let her read the manuscript when it was typed and before he submitted it to any publisher.
So all seemed to go serenely between them; he resolutely told himself that he had given her up; she did not appear to be aware of anything altered or subdued in his cordiality toward her Ц apparently missed nothing in his attitude that might once have been to her significant of any deeper feeling.
Yet, once or twice, when a gay company filled her studio, amid the chatter and music and movement of dancers, he became aware of her level, grey eyes gravely intent on him Ц but always the gravity he surprised in them turned to a quick, frank smile when his gaze encountered hers, and she always made him some pretty signal of recognition across the animated scene.
As for Helen, he always got on delightfully with that charming and capable girl. There was something very engaging about her, she was so wholesome, so energetic, so busy, so agreeable to look at.
He had acquired a habit of dropping in on his way out to lunch to watch her working on the sketches and studies for "Aspiration;" but one day she forgot to warn him and he blundered into the courtyard where, on a white circus-horse, a lovely, slender, but rather startling figure hid its face in its hands and desperately attempted to make a garment of its loosened hair, while an elderly female holding the horse's head cried "Shoo!" and Helen hustled him out, a little perturbed and intensely amused.
"I ought to have told you," she said. "I wouldn't mind, but even professional models object to anybody except, occasionally, another artist."
"I'm sorry," he said. "Please tell little Miss Eve that I didn't mean to scare her."
They chatted for a few minutes, then Helen smilingly excused herself and went back to her work, and Cleland continued on his way to lunch, chagrined at his stupidity.
"I wonder," he thought, "if that was my little unknown dancing partner? Now, she will think I've 'spoiled it all.'"
He was in masculine error again. Disconcerted beauty has the consolation that it is beautiful. Otherwise, it remains merely outraged modesty; and bitterness abides in its soul.
Helen, laughingly mentioning the affair to Stephanie, still immensely amused at Cleland's distress and apologetic blushes, added that the model, Marie Cliff, had been sensible enough to appreciate the humour of it, too.
"You mean," said Stephanie, coldly, "that she didn't care." And, not smiling, went on with her sewing.
"She's rather a refined type," said Helen, looking curiously at the girl who, bent over her mending, was plying her needle furiously.
"Don't you think so, Steve?"
"No. I think her typically common."
"How odd! She's quite young, and she's really very nice and modest Ц not the type of person you seem to imagine Ц "
"I don't like her," interrupted Stephanie calmly. But her slender fingers were flying, and she had set her teeth in her under lip, which had trembled a little.
Helen, chancing to mention Cleland that night as they were preparing for bed, was astonished at Stephanie's impatient comment:
"Oh, Jim's quite spoiled. I'm rapidly losing interest in that young man."
"Why?" asked Helen, surprised.
"Because he runs about with queer people. No man can do that and not show it in his own manner."
"What people, Steve?"
"Well, with Lady Button-eyes for one. With your modest and bashful little model, for another."
"Does he?" Then she began to laugh. "I'm glad he displays good taste, anyway! The little Cliff girl is charming."
"Isn't that rather a horrid and cynical thing to say?" demanded Stephanie, flushing brightly.
"Why? I think she's quite all right. Let them play together if they like. It's none of my business. Are you, the high-priestess of tolerance, becoming intolerant?" she added laughingly.
"No. I don't care what he does. But I should think he'd prefer to frivol with one of his own class."
"It's a matter of chance," remarked Helen, brushing out her curly brown hair. "The beggar-maid or Vere-de-Vere Ц it's all the same to a man if the girl is sufficiently attractive and amusing."
"Amusing?" repeated Stephanie. "That is a humiliating r?le Ц to amuse a man."
"If a girl doesn't, men soon neglect her. Men go where they are amused. Everybody does. You do. I do. Why not?"
Stephanie, still hotly flushed, shook out her beautiful chestnut hair and began to comb it viciously.
"I don't see how a common person can amuse a well-born man," she said.
"It's a reflection on us if we give them the opportunity," retorted Helen, laughing. "But if we're not clever enough to hold the men of our own caste, then they'll certainly go elsewhere for their amusement."
"And good riddance!"
"But who's to replace them?"
"I can get along perfectly without men."
"Steve, you're talking like a child! What happens to be the matter with you? Has anything gone wrong?"
"Absolutely nothing Ц " She turned sharply; her comb caught in her hair and she jerked it free. Perhaps that accounted for the sudden glint of tears in her grey eyes.
Helen slipped her arm around her, but the girl's rigid body did not yield and she kept her head obstinately averted.
"Are you getting tired of your idiotic bargain with Oswald?" asked Helen, gently.
"No, I am not! He never bothers me Ц never gets on my nerves Ц never is unjust Ц unkind Ц "
"I don't knowЕ Men in general Ц annoy me Ц men in Ц general."
"None in particular?"
"NoЕ It isn't very agreeable to know that one's brother goes about with a shameless dancer from the Follies."
"Are you sure he does?"
"Perfectly. He gives her a party in his studio, too, sometimes."
"But there's no harm in Ц "
"A party for two! They drink Ц together."
"They drink and dance and eat, all by themselves! They take up the rugs and turn on the music and Ц and I don't know what they do!†Ц I Ц d-don't know Ц I don't Ц I don't Ц !"
Her head fell into her hands; she stood rigid, her body shaken by emotions too unhappy, too new, too vague for her youthful analysis.
"I Ц I can't bear to think of him that way Ц " she stammered, " Ц he was so straight and clean Ц so clean Ц "
"Some men drift a little Ц sometimes Ц "
"They say soЕ I don't know. I am too miserable about him Ц too unhappy Ц "
She choked back a sob, and the slender hands that covered her eyes slowly clenched.
Helen looked at her in consternation. Girls don't usually betray so much emotion over some casual irregularity of a brother.
Stephanie pressed her clenched hands mutely against her lids for a while, then, her lips still quivering, she reached for her brush and began to groom her splendid hair again.
And Helen, watching her without a word, thought to self:
"She behaves as though she were falling in love with himЕ She'd certainly better be careful. The boy is already in love with her, no matter how he actsЕ If she isn't very, very careful she'll get into trouble with him."
Aloud she said cheerfully:
"Steve, dear, I really think I'm clever enough to have taken the measure of your very delightful brother. And I honestly don't believe it is in him to play fast and loose with any woman ever born."
"He is doing it!"
"That Ц Dancing girl Ц "
"Nonsense! If it's an ephemeral romance, which I don't believe, it's a gay and harmless one. Don't worry your pretty head about it, Steve."
After Stephanie was in bed she kissed her lightly, smiled reassuringly, switched off the light and went to her own room, slowly.
Very gravely she braided her hair before the mirror, looking at her pale, reflected face.
Yet, though pale, it was still a fresh, wholesome, beautiful face. But the brown eyes stared sadly at their twin brown images, and the girl shook her head.
For the nearest that Helen Davis had ever come to falling in love was when Cleland first walked into her studio. She could have fallen in love with him then Ц within the minute Ц out of a clear sky. She realized it after he had gone Ц not too deeply astonished Ц she, who had never before been in love, recognized its possibility all in a moment.
But she had learned to hold herself in check since that first, abrupt and clear-minded recognition of such a possibility.
Never by a word or glance had she ever betrayed herself; yet his very nearness to her, at times, set her heart beating, set a faint thrill stealing through her. Yet her eyes always met his pleasantly, frankly, steadily; her hand lay calm and cool in his when she welcomed him or bade him good-bye. Always she schooled herself to withstand what threatened her, gave it no food for reflection, no sustenance, no status, no consideration.
Love came as no friend to her. She soon realized that. And she quietly faced him and bade him keep his distance.
She looked at herself again in the glass. Her brown eyes were very, very serious. Then the smile glimmered.
"Quand m?me," she murmured gaily, and switched off the light.
It was a warm day in early June and Cleland, working in trousers and undershirt, and driven by thirst to his tin ice-box, discovered it to be empty.
"Confound it," he muttered, and rang up Stephanie's studio. A maid answered, saying that Miss Quest had gone motoring and Miss Davis had not yet returned from shopping.
"I want to borrow a lump of ice," explained Cleland. "I'll come down for it."
So he concealed his lack of apparel under a gay silk dressing gown, picked up a pan, and went down, not expecting to encounter anybody.
In the kitchenette, in the rear, the obliging maid gave him a lump of ice. Carrying it in one hand, aloft, as an expert waiter carries a towering tray of dishes, and whistling a gay air with great content Ц for his work upstairs had gone very well that morning Ц he sauntered out of the culinary regions, along the alley-like passageway, into the studio.
And as he started for the door which he had left ajar, a figure opened it from without and entered hurriedly Ц a scared, breathless little figure, bare-footed, swathed in a kimono and a shock of hair.
They stared at each other, astonished. Both blushed furiously.
"I simply can't help it," said the girl. "I was sitting on that horse waiting for Miss Davis, when a bee or a horsefly or something stung him and he began to rear and kick all around the court, and I slid off him and ran."
They both laughed. Cleland, clutching his pan of ice, said:
"I seem doomed to run into you when I shouldn't. I'm terribly sorry."
She blushed again and carefully swathed her waist in the obi.
"You didn't mean to," she said. "It was rather startling, though."
"It was, indeed. And now we're having another unconventional party. Shall I leave this ice here and go out and quiet the nag?"
"He'll surely kick you."
"I'll take a chance Ц " He set the pan of ice on a table, girded up his dressing-gown, and went out into the court. The horse stood quietly enough now. But Cleland soon discovered a green-eyed horsefly squatting on the wall and rubbing its forelegs together in devilish exultation.
"I'll fix you," he muttered, picking up a lump of wet clay and approaching with infinite caution. He was a good shot; he buried the bloodthirsty little demon under a spatter of clay. Then he went back for his ice.
"The deed is done," he said cheerily. "It was a horsefly, as you saidЕ Good-byeЕ When are we going to have another dance?"
"We'd better not," she said smilingly. She had seated herself on the sofa and had drawn her pretty, bare feet up under her kimono.
"You won't let me give another party for you?" he inquired.
"I ought not to."
"But will you?"
"I don't know. This kimono party we're having now seems sufficient for the present; and I think you'd better go."
"Anyway," he said, "when a desire for innocent revelling seizes you, you know where to go."
"Yes, thank you."
They laughed at each other.
"Good-bye, pretty stranger," he said.
"Good-bye, you nice boy!"
So he went away upstairs with his ice, and she stole out presently and ventured into the courtyard where the placid white horse stood as calmly as a cow.
And Stephanie, lying on her bed in her own room, twisted her body in anguish and, hands clenched, buried her face in her arms.
Helen, returning an hour later, and glancing into Stephanie's bed-room as she passed, saw the girl lying there.
"I thought you were motoring!" she exclaimed.
"The car is laid up," said Stephanie, in a muffled voice.
"Oh. Don't you feel well, Steve?"
"Can I do anything? Wait a moment Ц " She continued on to her bed-room, unpinned her hat, drew on her working smock, and came slowly back, buttoning it.
"What's wrong, Steve?" she inquired.
"Nothing," said the girl, drearily. "I'm just Ц tired."
"Why Ц you've been crying!" murmured Helen, bending over her. "What is making you so unhappy, Steve? Don't you wish to tell me?"
"Shall I sit here by you, dear? I can work this afternoon Ц "
"NoЕ It's nothing at all Ц truly it isn't."
"Had you rather be alone?"
Helen went slowly away toward the court where her nag and its rider were ready for her. Stephanie lay motionless, dumb, wretched, her bosom throbbing with emotions too powerful for her Ц yet too vague, too blind, to enlighten her.
Unawakened to passion, ignorant of it, regardless and disdainful of what she had never coped with, the mental and spiritual suffering was, perhaps, the keener.
Humiliation and grief that she was no longer first and alone in Cleland's heart and mind had grown into a sorrow deeper than she knew, deeper than she admitted to herself. All the childish and pettier emotions attended it, mocking her with her own frailty Ц ignoble jealousy, hard resentment, the primitive sarcasm born of envy Ц the white flash of hatred for those to whom this man turned for amusement Ц this man whom she had adored from boyhood.
Why had he cast her out of the first place in his heart and mind? He had even told her that he was in love with her. Why had he turned to this shameless dancer?
And to what others did he also turn to find amusement when she did not know where he was?
Had it been her fault? No. From the very first night that he had come back to her Ц in the very face of her happiness to have him again Ц he had shown her what kind of man he was Ц there at the Ball of All the Gods Ц with that dreadful Goddess of Night.
She turned feverishly, tortured by her thoughts, but neither they nor the hot pillow gave her any rest. They stung her like scorpions, setting every nerve on edge with something Ц anger, perhaps Ц something unendurable there in the silence of her room.
And at last she got up to make an end of it, once and for all. But the preparations took her some time Ц some cold water, brush and comb, and a chamois rag.
Cleland, now dressed for luncheon, humming a comic song under his breath and contentedly numbering his latest pencilled pages, heard the tap at his open door, and looked up cheerfully, hoping for Marie Cliff, a pre-prandial dance, and a pretty companion at luncheon. Tragedy entered, wearing the mask of Stephanie Quest.
"Hello!" he cried gaily, jumping up and coming toward her. "This is too delightful. Are you coming out to lunch with me, Steve?"