"Y-yes… I've got to do a – a lot of thinking some day, I suppose." She gazed absently into space for a few moments; then again the faintest of smiles curved her lips and she bent her head and remained very still, deep in reflection.
… "Did you wish to speak to Marie Cliff?" asked Helen, breaking the prolonged silence.
The girl looked up, dim-eyed, confused:
"I think she just went into the court-yard."
Stephanie's wool-gathering wits returned; she sprang up and walked swiftly out to the court, where the white horse was just being led in and the pretty dancer stood unpinning her hat.
She turned when Stephanie entered, and the girl went up to her, smilingly, and offered her hand.
"Miss Davis will be here in a few moments," she said. "I thought I'd come and tell you."
"Thank you," said Marie Cliff, curiously.
"Also," said Stephanie, "I wanted to tell you how very lovely you are on that horse. I had a glimpse of you last week, and you were too enchanting! No wonder Helen's study is so exquisite."
The little dancer flushed brightly. Her gloved hand still lay lifelessly in Stephanie's, who had retained it; her childish eyes asked for the reason of this kindness from a girl who had never noticed her.
Then, reading the unuttered question, Stephanie blushed too:
"I'm not much older than you are," she said, "and I'm not nearly as sensible. I've been rude enough to ignore you. Could you forgive me and be friends?"
"Yes," said Marie Cliff.
That was all the explanation offered or asked.
"Will you come to tea at five?"
"I should like to."
"I'd love to have you. And if it doesn't bore you, would you tell me something about your very beautiful profession? You see, stage dancing fascinates me, and I'm taking lessons and I've an inclination to become a professional."
"I'd love to talk about it with you!" said Marie Cliff impulsively. "I'll tell you everything I know about it… And I do know a little, because I have been on the stage since I was a child."
"You're one now," said Stephanie, laughing, " – an adorable one!" And she bent and kissed the little dancer on the lips.
"I'm glad we're friends," she said. "Don't forget five o'clock."
"N-no," said Marie Cliff unsteadily.
At five o'clock that afternoon Cleland, working fiercely on his manuscript toward a climax he had not planned for but which, suddenly but logically developing, threatened with disaster his leading lady and the young gentleman playing opposite, heard a step on the threshold of his open door.
"Hello, Harry!" he said with a friendly but vague wave of his pencil – for he had not stepped quite clear of the story in which he had been living among people never born – "I'd rather given you up. Come in and close the door."
"I couldn't keep away," said Belter hoarsely. He came in and closed the door. He looked even more grey and haggard than he had the night before.
"I expected you this morning," said Cleland, stepping clear of his story now, and looking very soberly at his old school-friend.
"I didn't intend to come at all." He seated himself in the chair indicated.
"You look about all in."
"I didn't sleep."
Cleland got up, walked to the ice-box, knocked off a bit of ice with a tack-hammer, and leisurely constructed a highball.
"Here you are, Harry. I can't; I'm working. There are cigars by your elbow, cigarettes, too."
Belter looked vacantly at the iced bracer, then he dropped both elbows on the edge of the desk and took, his drawn face between his hands.
Cleland began to pace the studio. Presently he halted by Belter's chair.
"Hell," he said pleasantly, "cut out the tragedy! It's good enough for my novel, where the poor devils I write about have to do what I make 'em. But you and I are free to do what we choose."
"Yes… And I've done it… I've done what I chose. Where has it landed me, Cleland?"
He looked at the frosty glass, pushed it away from him:
"That was a sorry spectacle I made of myself last night. Can you beat that for degradation – a man who has made a damnable failure of marriage, skulking at his wife's heels to snap and snarl at any decent man who is civil to her?"
"Don't talk so bitterly – "
"I'm indulging in a luxury, Cleland – the luxury of truth, of honesty, of straight thinking… I've been bragging about it, celebrating it, extolling it for years. But I never did any until last night."
"You're rubbing it in pretty hard, Harry. A man is bound to make mistakes – "
"I'm the mistake! I realize it, now – as Verne realized it. That's why he did what he did. You don't, if you are right… I never supposed I could behave as rottenly as I did last night. But it's been a long strain… You heard that rotten outbreak of mine concerning women – the night we heard what Verne had done? Well, the strain was showing… It broke me last night…"
He lifted his head and looked intently at Cleland:
"It was the shock of seeing her in a public place with another man. I had never seen her with any other man. It's nearly three years, now, since I made a damned ass of myself, and she very quietly went her way leaving me to go mine… And in all that time, Cleland, there has not been a breath of suspicion against her. She has been in the lighter and more frivolous shows almost continuously; but she has lived as straight a life as any woman ever lived… And I know it… And I knew it – cur that I was – when I spoke to her as I did, and turned on you like a rotter – "
He extended his hand and took hold of the iced glass, but let it rest there.
"I've lied and lied and lied," he said, "to myself about myself; to others about my estimate of women… I'm just a four-flusher, Cleland. The best of 'em are better than our stars. The remainder average as well as we do… Verne got what was coming to him… And so have I, Cleland – so have I – "
"Wait a moment – "
"Wait?" Belter laughed mirthlessly. "All right. I know how to wait. Waiting is the best thing I do. I've waited for nearly three years before I've told myself the truth. I've told it now, to myself, and to you… But it's too late to tell it to her."
"Do you think it is?"
Belter looked up in pallid surprise:
"I wonder," mused Cleland.
Belter's sunken gaze had become remote and fixed again. He said, half to himself:
"I couldn't let her alone. I couldn't learn to mind my own business. I'd been bawling aloud my theories for years, Cleland, but I couldn't apply them to her or to myself. I bragged about my mania for personal liberty, for tolerance; I lauded the maxim of 'hands off.' But I couldn't keep my meddling hands off her; I couldn't understand that she had the right to personal liberty – freedom in the pursuit of happiness. No; I tried to head her off, check her, stampede her into the common corral whither all men's wives are supposed to be driven – tried to rope her and throw her and blindfold, hobble and break her to suit myself… And, Cleland, do you know what happened? I found I had come upon a character, a mind, a personality which would not endure the tyranny we men call domestic affection… That's what I discovered… And I did not do the breaking. No; she has accomplished that. And – here I am, to admit it to you… And I think I'll go, now – "
Cleland walked slowly to the door with him, one arm resting on his shoulder:
"I wish you'd tell her what you've told me, Harry."
"It's too late. She wouldn't care, now."
"Are you very sure?"
"Do you think a man can use a woman the way I have used her, and make her care a straw about what I say to her now?"
Cleland said in a low voice:
"I can't answer you. I don't understand women; I write about them… I have troubles of my own, too. So I can't advise you, Harry… Are you still in love with her?"
He said in a dead voice:
"I've always been. It's done things to me. I'll die of it, one day. But that's no argument."
"I don't know. Tell her."
"It's no argument," repeated Belter. "It's purely selfish. That's what I am – purely selfish. I'm thinking of myself. I'm in love with her… And she's better off without me."
"All the same, I think I'd take a chance. I think I'd tell her. After all, you owe her that much – whatever she may choose to do about it."
"She doesn't care, now."
"Still, you owe it to her. You're not a welcher, you know."
They had reached the foot of the stairs. Helen, coming out of the enclosed court, met them face to face; and they exchanged amiabilities there outside her studio door.
"Come in and have some tea," she said. "Harry, you look ill. Are you? Anyway, a cup of tea won't slay you in your tracks – " fitting her key to the door all the while she was talking – "so come in like two polite young men – "
The door swung open; they entered.
"Oho!" exclaimed Helen; "Steve must be here because the kettle-lamp is lighted. We'll have something to nibble presently, I expect. Find a chair, Harry, and watch that kettle. Jim, show him the cigarettes. I'm going to take off this blouse and I'll be back with Steve in a moment – "
She stopped short: Stephanie and Marie Cliff, coming from the kitchenette, appeared at the further end of the studio, the former bearing a big bowl of strawberries, the latter a tray of little cakes.
Stephanie greeted the newcomers with an airy wave of her hand; Marie Cliff promptly lost her colour; but there was nothing to do except to advance, which she continued doing, moving very close to Stephanie's elbow.
The situation was going to be as awkward as the people involved made it: Cleland, secretly aghast, came forward to relieve Stephanie and Marie of their burdens:
"If there isn't enough food for a party, I'll take Harry and go," he said gaily. "It isn't done – this grasshopper-like invasion of your natural resources."
"Piffle," said Helen, "there's plenty."
Harry Belter, who had been standing in the middle of the floor as though petrified, wrenched himself out of his trance and put his legs in motion. His face was very red: he greeted Stephanie elaborately but mutely; he bowed mutely to his wife.
She had managed to recover her self-control: a deep flush invaded her pallour. Then, under the eyes of them all, very quietly she did a thing which confirmed the admiration and respect of everybody there: she extended her child-like hand to her husband, saying:
"It is nice to see you again, and I'm very sure that there is enough tea for everybody."
Her hand lay in her husband's for an appreciable moment; then he bent over it, lower, to conceal the nervous working of his features – and touched it with trembling lips – something he had never before done in all his life – and passing, by the same token, out of the free and arid desert of his folly, he rested, sub jugum, beside the still waters of eternal truth.
Helen went on toward her room to shed her clay-stained smock; Stephanie investigated the kettle which was approaching the boiling point, and Cleland deposited the provender on a neighbouring table.
"Keep away from them," whispered Stephanie, close beside him – so close that the fragrance of her hair and breath caressed his cheek.
"You darling," he motioned with his lips.
"Oh, dear! Are we on such a footing!" she asked, with a little quick-drawn breath of smiling dismay.
"Why not?" he said under his breath. "You're awake, now."
"Are you not, dearest?"
"I – had a wonderful sleep last night," she said perversely. "I don't know whether I'm awake or not."
"Oh, Steve! – "
"I don't, I tell you! – " keeping her gaze smilingly averted and very busy with kettle and tea-caddy… "Where have you been all day?"
"I came down, but you had fled to your lesson. Then I had a date with H. Belter, but he didn't appear until nearly five. It was a strenuous interview."
She lifted her eyes to his, full of interested inquiry.
"Yes," he nodded; "he's found out he's an ass, and he's in love with his wife. If she can stand for him now, after these three years, I think he'll make a better husband than the average."
"She's a dear," murmured Stephanie. "What a painful situation! – but wasn't she dignified and sweet? Oh, I do hope she cares enough for Harry to give him another chance… Are they amiable together over there? I don't want to turn around."
He cautiously surveyed the scene out of a corner of his eye:
"She's seated beside the piano. It's evident she hasn't asked him to be seated. They are horribly serious. He looks ten years older."
"We must let them alone. Tea is ready, but I sha'n't say so until they move… What was it you asked me, Jim? – whether I am awake? … Do you know that I believe I'm stirring in my slumbers because – because, now and then – just for an instant – a stab of contrition goes through and through me. Do you know why? I have a glimmering of guilty misgiving concerning this painful throb of conscience – "
She looked about her, searching among the paraphernalia of the tea tray. "Oh, the deuce! I remember, now, that we're out of lemons! You have some, haven't you?"
"Yes, I'll run up and – "
"I know where they are in your ice box. I'll find them – "
"What nonsense! Wait! – "
She had started already; but swiftly as her light feet sped he overtook her on the stairs; gathered her into his arms, all pink and breathing rapidly:
"Steve – my darling! – "
"I thought you might do this… I wanted to see – "
"Whether it could happen to me again – what I experienced with you – "
There was a silence: her young lips melted against his; lingered; her arms tightened around his neck. And the next instant she had freed herself, hot-cheeked, disconcerted.
"Oh, it, was – quite true – " she stammered, resting against the banisters with one hand pressed tightly over her heart. "My curiosity is satisfied… Please!– Jim, dear – we ought to behave rationally – oughtn't we?"
But she did not resist when he framed her face between his hands; and she suffered his lips again, and again her slight response and the grey eyes vaguely regarding him shook his self-control.
"Will you try to love me, Steve?"
"I seem to be doing it."
"Is it really love, Steve? Do you truly care for me?"
"Oh, dear, yes!" she said, with a quick-drawn breath which ended in a quiet sigh, scarcely audible. Then a faintly humorous smile dawned in her eyes: "You're changing, Jim. You always were very wonderful to me, but you also were mortal. Now, you're changing; you are putting on a glorious, iridescent immortality before my eyes. I'm quite bewildered – quite dazzled – and my mind isn't very clear – especially when you kiss me – "
"Are you making fun of me?"
"No, I'm not. That's the way with the gods when they start a love affair with a mortal girl. Sometimes she runs, but they always catch her or turn her into a tree or a waterfall or something they can acquire and fence in, and visit like a plot in a cemetery. And if she doesn't run away, then she just falls into a silly trance with her Olympian lover, and somebody comes along and raises the dickens with them both… And now I'd like to know what's going to happen to me?"
"You're going to try to fall in love with me first."
"Oh. And then?"
"Oh. And what will old lady Civilization say? I told you somebody would raise the dickens!"
"I suppose I wouldn't care if I loved you enough."
"Will you try?"
"Oh, dear." … She freed herself gracefully, stepped back a stair lower, and leaned on the rail, considering.
"Oh, dear," she repeated under her breath. "What a tangle! … I don't know why I've let myself – care for you – in your way. I ought to stop it. Could you stand it?" she added na?vely. And the reply in his eyes scared her.
"Oh, this is serious!" she murmured. "We've gotten on much further than I realized… I remember, when you began to make love to me, I thought it very sweet and boyish of you – to fall in love with your own sister. But I've begun to make love to you, now… And I ought not to."
"Because you are married?" he asked under his breath.
"Oh, yes. It won't do for me to make advances to you."
"When have you made any advances?"
"I came out here. I wanted you to – kiss me. Oh, this isn't going to do at all. I can see that, now! – " She framed her face in her hands and shook her head. "Jim – dearest, dearest of men – it won't do. I didn't realize that I was caring for you in this way. Why," she added, her grey eyes widening, "it is almost dangerous!"
"The thing to do," he said, reddening, "is to tell Oswald."
"I can't tell him!"
"You've got to, if you fall in love with me."
"Oh, Jim, it would be too heartless! You don't know – "
"No, I don't!" he exclaimed impatiently, "and I think it's time I did! You can't be in love with two men at the same time."
She blushed furiously:
"I – he never even touched my fingers with his lips! And you – you take me into your arms with no more hesitation than if I were a child… I believe I've behaved like one with you. I'm old enough to be ashamed, and I'm beginning to be."
"Is it because you're married?"
"Yes, it is! I can't let myself go. I can't let myself care for – for what you do – to me. I came out here to give you the chance – ready to learn something – desiring to. I mustn't take any more lessons – from you."
"I am going to tell Oswald that I care for you, Steve."
To his astonishment, tears flashed in the grey eyes:
"If you do," she said, "it will be like killing something that makes no resistance. It – it's too cruel – like murder. I – I couldn't bring myself – "
"Why? Did you marry him out of pity?"
She bit her lip and stood staring into vacancy, one hand tightening on the stair-rail, the other worrying her lips.
"I tell you," she said slowly, her gaze still remote, "the only thing to do is to do nothing… Because I'm afraid… I couldn't bear it. I'd have to think of it all my life and I – I simply couldn't endure it… You mustn't ask me any more."
"Very well," he said coldly. "And I think we'd better go back to the studio – "
As he passed her he paused, waiting for her to precede him. She turned; her hand fell from the banisters and hung beside her; but the slender fingers groped for his, slipped among them, tightened, drawing him partly toward her; and her left foot moved forward a trifle, blocking his way and bringing them closely confronted.
"I – love you," she faltered. "And I don't know what to do about it."
Crushed into his embrace she did not seem to know any the more what she was going to do about it. Her flushed cheek lay hot against his; her hands moved restlessly on his shoulders; she tried to think – strove to consider, to see what it was that lay before her – what she had to do about this matter of falling in love. But her fast beating heart told her nothing; a listless happiness invaded her; mind and body yielded to the lethargy; thought was an effort, and the burden lay with this wonderful being who held her in his arms – who, once mortal – had assumed the magic of immortality – this youthful god who was once a man – her lover.
"It's got to come right somehow, my darling," he whispered.
"Yes – somehow."
"You'll explain it some day – so that I shall understand how to make it come right."
She did not answer, but her cheek pressed closer against his.
When they entered the studio Helen, seated by the tea table, rose with a gesture of warning:
"That child is in my room and Harry is with her. They were standing together over there by the piano when I came out of my room. I saw at once that she was on the verge of something – she tried to look at me – tried to speak; and Harry didn't even make the effort. So I said, quite casually, 'It is frightfully close in the studio, Marie. But you'll find it cool in my room. Better lie down in there for a moment.' … They're in there. I don't know what I hope, exactly. She is such a dear… Where on earth have you two been?"
"On the stairs," said Stephanie. "We started to get something – what was it, Jim? Oh, yes; there's no lemon here – "
"Did you get any?"
"No; we just conversed." She picked up a cake, nibbled it, selected a strawberry and nibbled that, too.
The tea wasn't fresh, but she sipped it, sitting there very silent and preoccupied with now and then a slow side-glance at her lover, who was attempting to make the conversation general.
Helen responded lightly, gaily, maintaining her part in a new and ominous situation which had now become perfectly recognizable to her.
For these two people on either side of her had perfectly betrayed themselves – this silent, flushed girl, still deep under the spell of the master magic of the world – this too talkative, too plausible, too absent-minded young man who ate whatever was handed to him, evidently unaware that he was eating anything, and whose eyes continually reverted to the girl.
The smile on Helen's lips was a little fixed, perhaps, but it was generous and sweet and untroubled. A man sat at her elbow whom she could care for, if she let herself go. A girl sat on the other side who was another man's wife, and who was already in love with this man. But the deep anxiety in Helen's heart was not visible in her smile.
"What about that very tragic pair in my room?" she asked at last. "Shall we clear out and give them the whole place to settle it in? It's getting worse than a problem play – "