The Restless Sex
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"Sit down a moment," she said. But he continued to stand; and she came over and stood beside his desk, resting one hand on it.
And, after a moment, lifting her grey eyes to his:
"I have borne a great deal from you. But there is an insult which you have offered me to-day that I shall not endure in silence."
"What insult?" he demanded, turning red.
"Making my studio a rendezvous for you and your – mistress!"
He knew what she meant instantly, and his wrath blazed:
"It was an accident. I don't know how you heard of it, but it was pure accident. Also, that is a rotten thing to say – "
"Is it! You once told me that you prefer to call a spade a spade! Oh, Jim! – you were clean once. What have you done!"
"But it's a lie – and an absurd one!"
"Do you think that of me, too – that I tell lies?"
"No. But you evidently believe one."
"It is too obvious to doubt – " Her throat was dry with the fierceness of her emotions and she choked a moment.
"Who told you?"
"I was there."
"In my bed-room. I had not gone out. I heard the maid tell you I was out motoring. I meant to speak to you – but you have been so – so unfriendly lately… And then that woman came in!" … Her grey eyes fairly blazed.
"Why do you do this to me?" she cried, clenching both hands. "It is wicked! – unthinkable! Why do you hold me in such contempt?"
Her fierce anger silenced him, and his silence lashed her until she lost her head.
"Do you think you can offer me such an affront in my own studio because I am really not your sister? – because your name is Cleland and mine is not? – because I was only the wretched, starved, maltreated child of drunken parents when your father picked me out of the gutter! Is that why you feel at liberty to affront me under my own roof – show your contempt for me? Is it?"
"Steve, you are mad!" he said. He had turned very white.
"No," she said, "but I'm at the limit of endurance. I can't stand it any longer. I shall go to-night to the man I married and live with him and find a shelter there – find protection and – f-forgetfulness – " Her voice broke but her eyes were the more brilliant and dangerous for the flashing tears:
"I know what you and my aunt talked over between you," she said. "You discussed the chances of my developing erratic, unscrupulous, morbid, immoral traits! You were anxious for fear I had inherited them. Probably now you think I have. Think as you please – !" she flashed out through her tears; "you have killed every bit of happiness in me. Remember it some day!"
She turned to go, and he sprang forward to detain her, but she twisted herself out of his arms and reeled back against the desk.
Then he had her in his arms again, and she stared at his white, tense face, all distorted by her blinding tears:
"I love you, Steve! That's all the answer I give you. That's my reply to your folly.I never loved anybody else; I never shall; I never can. I am clean. I don't know how it happens, but I am! They lie who tell you anything else. I'm like my father; I care for only one woman. I'm incapable of caring for any other.
"I don't know what I've done to you to make you say such things and think them. I consider you as my own kin; I respect and love you like a kinsman. But – God help me – I've gone further; I love you as a lover. I can't tear you out of my heart; I've tried because I saw no hope that you ever could fall in love with me – but I couldn't do it – I couldn't.
"If you go to the man you married I shall never love any other woman. That is the truth, and I know it, now!"
Her body was still rigid in his arms; her tense hands lay flat on his breast as though to repulse him.
But there was no strength in them and they had begun to tremble under the hard beating of his heart.
Her mouth, too, was quivering; her tear-wet eyes looked mutely into his; suddenly her body relaxed, yielded; and at his fierce embrace her hot mouth melted against his.
"Steve," he stammered – "Steve – can you care for me – in my way – ?"
Under the deep-fringed lids her grey eyes looked at him vaguely; her lips were burning.
"Steve – " he whispered.
Her slowly lifted eyes alone responded.
"Can you love me?"
Her eyes closed again. And after a long while her lips responded delicately to his.
"Is it love, Steve?" he asked, trembling.
"I don't know… I'm so tired – confused – "
Her arms fell from his neck to his shoulders and she opened her eyes, listlessly.
"I think it – must be," she said… "I'm quite sure it is!"
Cleland, tremendously thrilled and excited by the first but faint response to his ardour which he had ever obtained of Stephanie, but uncertain, too, and almost incredulous as to its significance and duration, retained sufficient common sense and self-control to restrain him from pressing matters further. For Stephanie seemed so listless, so confused, so apparently unable to comprehend herself and these new and deep emotions which threatened her, that he forebore to seize what seemed to be an undue advantage.
They parted very quietly at her studio door; she na?vely admitting physical fatigue, headache, and a natural desire to be down in her darkened room; he to return to his studio, too much upset to work or to eat, later, when the dinner hour drew near.
However, he took his hat and stick and went down stairs. When he rang at her studio, Helen admitted him, saying that Stephanie was asleep in her room and had not desired any dinner. So they chatted for a while, and then Cleland took his departure and walked slowly up the street toward the Rochambeau. And the first person he met on University Place was Marie Cliff.
Perhaps it was the instinct to make amends to her for the unjust inferences drawn to her discredit a few hours before – perhaps it was the sheer excitement and suddenly renewed hope of Stephanie that incited him. Anyway, his gay greeting and unfeigned cordiality stirred the lonely girl to response, and when they had walked as far as the Beaux Arts, they were quite in the mood to dine together.
She was grateful to be with an agreeable man whom she liked and whom she could trust; his buoyant spirits and happy excitement were grateful for somebody on whom they could be vented.
In that perfumed tumult of music, wine, and dancing they seated themselves, greeted cordially by Louis, the courtly and incomparable; and they dined together luxuriously, sometimes rising to dance between courses, sometimes joining laughingly in a gay chorus sustained by the orchestra, sometimes, with elbows on the cloth and heads together, chattering happily of nothing in particular.
Men here and there bowed to her and to him; some women recognized and greeted them; but they were having much too good and too irresponsible a time together to join others or to invite approaches.
It was all quite harmless – a few moments' pleasure without other significance than that the episode had been born of a young man's high spirits and a young girl's natural relief when her solitude was made gay for her without reproach.
It was about eleven o'clock; Marie, wishing to be fresh for her posing in the morning, reminded him with frank regret that she ought to go.
"I wouldn't care," she said, "except that since I've left the Follies I have to depend on what I earn at Miss Davis's studio. So you don't mind, do you, Mr. Cleland?"
"No, of course not. It's been fine, hasn't it?"
"Yes. I've had such a good time! – and you are the nicest of men – "
Her voice halted; Cleland, watching her with smiling eyes, saw a sudden alteration of her pretty features. Then he turned to follow her fixed gaze.
"Hello," he said, "there's Harry Belter. Are you looking at him?"
Her face had grown very sober; she withdrew her gaze with a little shrug of indifference, now.
"Yes, I was looking at him," she said quietly.
"I didn't know you knew him."
"Didn't you? … Yes, I used to know him."
"The recollection doesn't appear to be very pleasant."
"Too bad. I like Belter. He and I were at school together. He's enormously clever."
She remained silent.
"He really is. And he is an awfully good fellow at heart – a little pronounced, a trifle tumultuous sometimes, but – "
She said, evenly:
"I know him better than you do, Mr. Cleland."
"Yes… I married him."
Cleland was thunderstruck.
"I was only seventeen," she said calmly. "I was on the stage at the time."
"Good Lord!" he murmured, astounded.
"He never spoke of it to you?"
"Never! I never dreamed – "
"I did. I dreamed." She shrugged her shoulders again, lightly. "But – I awoke very soon. My dream had ended."
"What on earth was the matter?"
"I am afraid you had better ask him," she replied gravely.
"I beg your pardon; I shouldn't have asked that question at all!"
"I didn't mind… It is my tragedy – still. But let a man interpret it to men. A woman would not be understood."
"Are you – divorced?"
Cleland, still deeply astonished, looked across the room at Belter. That young man, very red, sat listening to Badger Spink's interminable chatter – pretending to listen; but his disturbed gaze was turned from time to time on Marie Cliff; and became hideously stony when it shifted to Cleland at moments without a sign of recognition.
"Shall we go?" asked the girl in a low voice.
They rose. A similar impulse seemed to seize Belter, and he got up almost blindly and strode across the floor.
Cleland, suddenly confronted at the door of the cloak-room, from which Marie was just emerging, said:
"Hello, Harry," in a rather embarrassed manner.
"Go to hell," replied the latter in a low voice of concentrated fury, and turned on his wife.
"Marie," he said unsteadily, "may I speak to you?"
"Certainly, but not now," replied the girl, who had turned white as a sheet.
Cleland touched the man's arm which was trembling:
"Better not interfere," he said pleasantly. "The disgrace of a row will be yours, not your wife's."
"What are you doing with my wife!" whispered Belter, his voice shaking with rage.
"I'll tell you, Harry. I'm showing her all the respect and friendship and sympathy that there is in me to to show to a charming, sincere young girl… You know the sort of man I am. You ought to know your wife but evidently you don't. Therefore, your question is superfluous."
Belter drew him abruptly back to the foot of the stairs:
"If you're lying I'll kill you," he said. "Do you understand?"
"Yes. And if you make any yellow scene here, Harry, after I've taken your wife home, I'll come back and settle you. Do you understand? … For God's sake," he added coldly, "if you've got any breeding, show it now!"
The tense silence between them lasted a full minute. Then, very slowly, Belter turned toward the cloak-room where, just within the door, his wife stood looking at him.
His sanguine features had lost all their colour in the greyish pallour that suddenly aged him. He went toward her; she made the slightest movement of recoil, but faced him calmly.
"I'm sorry," he said in a voice like a whisper. "I am – the fool that you – think me… I'll – take myself off."
He bowed to her pleasantly, turned and passed Cleland with his hat still in his hand:
"I'm sorry, Jim; I know you're all right; and I'm – all wrong … all wrong – "
"Come to the studio to-morrow. Will you, Harry?" whispered Cleland.
But Belter shook his head, continuing on his way to the street.
"I'll expect you," added Cleland. "Come about noon!"
The other made no sign that he had heard.
Stephanie was awake with the sparrows the next morning, and her face betrayed not a trace of the pallour and fatigue which had made Helen a little anxious when she came into the studio after her interview with Cleland.
"I never had such a sleep in my life!" she announced, sauntering into Helen's room, already bathed and dressed, when at last she heard the latter's bath running. "I feel about sixteen, Helen."
"You look it, dear. What was the matter with you last night? Jim came about nine."
"Did he?" said the girl, turning to conceal a smile. "What did you do to entertain him."
"Talked about you," said Helen, watching her where she stood at the sunny window, absently pleating the sash curtains between idle fingers.
"Was he edified?"
"He seemed to be. When I changed the subject he went away."
Stephanie, at the window, suddenly laughed outright, but her back remained turned.
"Men are funny," she said.
"Women are funnier, Steve."
"What! Are you a traitor to your sex?"
"Sometimes," said Helen, absently. "I feel that my sex betrays me – and a few others of my own mind."
Stephanie turned and looked at her, still laughing:
"Like the Kiltie," she said, "you complain that the rest of the regiment is marching out of step with you."
"There's only a corporal's guard of us in step to the music," smiled Helen… "You're looking radiant, Steve! I've never seen you as enchanting."
"I feel like enchanting the world – like a sorceress all ready for business… This is a wonderful day, Helen."
"What are your engagements?"
"Two lessons this morning… I don't know whether I'll go. Luncheon with Oswald at Tinto's. But it's so stuffy there in June, and the summer garden is so grubby."
"You're not going, then?"
"I don't know. I don't want to hurt his feelings," said the girl, reluctantly.
Helen sat up, flung off the bed clothes, and swung her superb young body out of bed.
"My bath's running over. Sit there and talk, Steve – "
But Stephanie turned to the window, her lips still edged with the same indefinable smile, and gazed at space through the netted squares of sunshine.
Breakfast was served in the studio presently. Helen joined her in bathrobe and slippers, knotting the belt around her waist.
"I'm wonderfully hungry," exclaimed Stephanie.
"It's more than you've been for several weeks, Steve."
Again the girl laughed, not meeting Helen's glance.
"What do you think of marriage?" she inquired presently. "I hope you haven't the very horrid ideas of Harry Belter."
"What are Harry's ideas?"
"He says it's the curse of civilization," said Stephanie, "and the invention of meddlesome and superstitious imbeciles. He says that the impulse toward procreation is mechanical and involuntary, and ought to be considered so without further personal responsibility; and that the State should nourish and educate whatever children were worth saving to replenish the waste, and put the others out of the way."
"Harry," remarked Helen, "talks for talking's sake very often."
"He's quite serious. His ideas are revolting. Never have I known a man who is so savagely an iconoclast as Harry Belter."
"Harry is a talker, dear. He doesn't believe a word of it. Harry Belter is, by nature, a fat, happy, witty, clever and very sentimental young man who also is so overwhelmingly selfish that anything which happens to annoy him he considers a cataclysmic catastrophe involving the entire civilized world in ruin!"
"Do you wish to know what really is the matter with Harry Belter? Shall I tell you what actually has inspired this noisy iconoclast and moral anarchist with the urge for talking?"
"I'd like to know."
"I'll tell you. Three years ago he married a child of seventeen and started to mould her to suit himself. The only trouble was that she had a mind. She knew what she wanted to do and to be. She could not understand why this was incompatible with being his wife, especially as he had won her by his loudly reiterated advocation of personal liberty and the fundamental necessity for the development of individualism."
"How do you know this?"
"She told me."
"Three years ago."
"Who is she, Helen?"
Helen answered pleasantly, looking into the curious grey eyes:
"Her name, on the stage, is Marie Cliff. I have known her a long while and I am very fond of her."
Stephanie, scarlet, winced under her faintly humourous smile.
"They are divorced, then," she managed to say.
"She has never given him any cause," said Helen, slowly. "No woman, of her own knowledge, can truly say one word against her character; nor can any man. She merely revolted at the tyranny he attempted, in the guise of affection, of course. She refused to be deprived of the liberty to think and act as she chose. She rejected the worn-out conventions with which he attempted to chain her – this apostle of personal freedom. She cared for her profession – he married her when she was on the stage – and she resolutely insisted on her liberty to continue it.
"The result was a family smash – her return to the stage. And since then she has refused to accept a penny from him and has supported herself by her profession, and, sometimes, by posing for artists.
"And that is the real story of Harry Belter and Marie Cliff. So you can believe as much as you choose of his views on matrimony."
After a flushed and painful silence, Stephanie said:
"Do you believe this to be true?"
"If one woman can judge and understand another, what I have told you is true, Steve. Long ago I won the child's confidence. She told me this quite frankly, and in a manner which makes the truth of it unmistakable… We have become great friends, this little dancer and I. I don't think I ever knew a simpler nature or a more transparently honest one… And that is why I was not worried at any little ephemeral romance that might amuse the child with Jim Cleland… I was too certain of them —both," she added, looking calmly into the grey eyes that winced again and fell under her serene gaze.
"I'm a rotten little beast," said Stephanie.
"You're very feminine."
"Oh, Helen, I'm not. I'm a rotter. I didn't know it was in me. I thought I was above such things – "
"Nobody is, Steve, until they make the effort. High thinking requires more than a natural generosity and sympathy – more than innate sentiment. It is an attainment; and there is none without effort. And effort sometimes hurts."
"I want to speak to that girl when she comes in," said Stephanie. "I never have; I've never noticed her at all. I shall ask her to tea."
"She'll be here pretty soon. Of course you're not supposed to know about Harry."
"Of course not. But I'll make amends for my incivility. I was a beast! But – it's confusing – and hard for a girl to understand when a girl like that is so unconventional with one's – one's – "
"Brother?" suggested Helen drily.
"Yes… I'm terribly ashamed… Does Jim know?"
"About Harry Belter? No. I don't think anybody does."
"What a sham that man is!" exclaimed Stephanie hotly.
"No. He's a typical man, dear. Some women yield, some resist; that's all. And the man never has the slightest idea that he is tyrannizing. If you tell him that he'll be amazed and furious. He'll point out to you all the love and affection and solicitude and money he's lavished on the object of his adoration; he'll portray for you her obstinacy, her coldness, her shocking ingratitude for benefits received. He really believes himself a martyr.
"Steve, man's idea is still that to the victor belong the spoils. We are the spoils of the chase, dear. His conventions were made to contain us in a sort of game-preserve before capture; cage us after we are made prisoner. His laws fetter us; a misstep ruins us; irregularities never impair him. That is the ancient view; that, still, is the secret view of man; that is his inborn conviction regarding us and himself… And, very slowly, we are beginning his education."
"I didn't know you felt that way," said Stephanie.
"I do… But if I were in love" – she laughed gaily – "I'd be inclined to take my chances with this monster I have painted for you."
"You do believe in marriage?"
"What else is there, dear? Harry's piffle means nothing except that a plucky girl has begun his education, and it hurts. I don't know what else there is to take the place of marriage. It's the parties to the contract who don't understand its essence."
"What would you suggest?" inquired Stephanie curiously.
"Education. A girl should be brought up to master some trade or profession. She should support herself by it. She should never go to her husband empty-handed and unable to support herself.
"If, then, under the mutual marriage contract, her earning capacity be necessarily checked by child-birth, and by the later and natural demands of progeny, these alone should temporarily but only in part interrupt her in the exercise of her trade or profession. And he should pay for them.
"But she should have a life work to do; and so should he, no matter how ample their means. Domestic drudgery must be done by others hired for the purpose, or else by themselves, sharing alike. In no other way that I see can marriage remain endurable."
After a silence Stephanie said na?vely:
"I haven't any trade or profession."
"You are a graduate nurse."
"Oh. I forgot. That is comforting!"
"Also you are already married."
The girl looked up in a startled way, as though hearing this information for the first time. Helen gazed gravely into the troubled grey eyes:
"Do you regret it, Steve?"
"I don't know. I haven't had time to think about it."
"It's high time, isn't it?"
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