She looked up; Oswald Grismer stood on the threshold of the open door.
"Come in!" she said gaily. "I'll give you tea in a few minutes."
Grismer came forward, saluted her with easy grace, greeted Stephanie with that amiable ceremony which discloses closer intimacy, turned to Cleland with that wistful cordiality which never seemed entirely confident.
"Oswald," said Helen, "there's a problem play being staged in my bed-room."
"Marie Cliff and Harry Belter," explained Stephanie in a low voice.
Grismer was visibly astonished.
"That's amusing," he said pleasantly.
"Isn't it?" said Helen. "I don't know whether I'm pleased. She's such a little brick! And Harry has lived as he pleased… Oh, Lord! Men are queer. People sneer at a problem play, but everybody ever born is cast for some typical problem-play part. And sooner or later, well or badly, they play it."
"Critics talk rot; why expect more of the public?" inquired Grismer. "And isn't it funny what a row they make about sex? After all, that's what the world is composed of, two sexes, with a landscape or marine background. What else is there to write about, Cleland?"
The latter laughed:
"It merely remains a matter of good taste. You sculptors have more latitude than painters; painters more than we writers. Pathology should be used sparingly in fiction – all sciences, in fact. Like a clove of garlic applied to a salad bowl, a touch of science is sufficient to flavour art; more than that makes it reek. Better cut out the art altogether if the science fascinates you, and be the author of 'works' instead of mere books."
Stephanie, watching Cleland while he was speaking, nodded:
"Yes," she said, "one could write fiction about a hospital nurse, but not about nursing. It wouldn't have any value."
"We're really very limited in the world. We have land and water, sun and moon and stars, two sexes, love and hate to deal with. Everything else is merely a modification of these elemental fixtures… It becomes tiresome, sometimes."
"Oswald! Don't talk like a silly pessimist," said Stephanie sharply.
He laughed in his easy, attractive way and sat gently swinging one long leg, which was crossed over the other.
"There is in every living and articulated thing a nerve which, if destroyed, destroys for its possessor a certain area of interest in life. People become pessimists to that extent.
"But, where all the nerves converge to form the vital ganglion, a stroke there means extermination."
"Apropos of what is this dissertation wished upon us?" asked Stephanie with an uneasy smile.
"Did you ever see a paralyzed spider, Stephanie? – alive, breathing, destined to live for weeks, perhaps, and anyway until the wasp's egg under it hatches and becomes a larva to devour it?
"Well, the old wasp required fresh meat for its young, so, with her sting, she annihilated the nerve controlling motion, laid her egg, certain that her progeny would find perfectly fresh food when born.
"So I say it's better to get the stroke of Fate in the neck than to get it in any particular area and live for a while a paralyzed victim for some creature ultimately to eat alive."
There was a silence. Helen broke it with pleasant decision:
"This is not an appetizing conversation. If anybody wishes any the tea is ready."
There was enough daylight left in the studio so the lamps remained unlighted.
"Do you suppose we ought to go out somewhere?" asked Stephanie, "and leave the place to those two poor things in there? You know they may be too unhappy or too embarrassed to come out and run the gauntlet."
But Stephanie was wrong; for, as she ended, Belter appeared at the end of the studio in the fading light. His young wife came slowly forward beside him. The strain, the tension, the effort, all were visible, but the girl held herself erect and the man fairly so.
There was tea for them – no easier way to mitigate their ordeal. Conversation became carelessly general; strawberries and little cakes were tasted; a cigarette or two lighted.
Then, after a while there chanced to fall a silence; and the young wife knew that the moment belonged to her.
"I think," she said in a distinct but still little voice, "that we ought to go home. If you are ready, Harry – "
By the end of the first week in June Cleland was in a highly excited state of mind in regard to his infant novel, in which all the principals were now on the edge of catastrophe.
"I don't know how they got there," he said nervously to Badger Spink, who had dropped in to suggest himself as illustrator in case any magazine took the story for serial publication.
Spink's clever, saturnine features remained noncommittal. If Cleland turned out to be a coming man, he wished to participate and benefit; if he proved a failure he desired to remain pleasantly aloof.
For the only thing in the world that interested Badger Spink was his own success in life; and he had a horror of contaminating it by any professional association with mediocrity or failure.
"What's your story about?" he inquired with that bluntness that usually passed for the disinterested frankness of good comradeship.
"Oh, it's about a writer of stories," said Cleland, vaguely.
"He's the hero?"
"If you'd call him that. What is a hero, Spink? I never saw one in real life."
Spink squinted. It was his way of grinning.
"Well, a literary hero," he said, "is one who puts it over big on his first novel. The country goes crazy about his book, the girls go crazy over him, publishers go panting after him waving wads; editors flag him with fluttering cheques. That's one sort of hero, Cleland. But he's a myth. The real thing is a Charlie Chaplin. All the same, you'd better let your hero make a hit with his novel. If you don't, good night!"
Cleland's features became troubled:
"I suppose his book ought to make a hit to make mybook popular," he said. "But as a matter of fact it doesn't. I'm afraid the character I've drawn is no hero. He's like us all, Spink; he writes a book; friends flatter; critics slam; the public buys a number of copies, and it's all over in a few weeks. A punk hero – what?"
"Very. He won't get over with the young person," said Spink. "In these days of the movie and the tango nobody becomes very much excited over novels anyway; and if you don't startle the country with your hero's first novel – make it the sort that publishers advertise as 'compelling' and 'a new force in literature' – well, you'll get the hook, I'm afraid. Listen to me: work in the 'urge'; make it plain that there's not a trace of 'sex' in your hero's book or in yours – or any 'problem' either. Cheeriness does it! That intellectual eunuch, the 'Plain Peepul,' is squatting astride of the winged broncho. His range reaches from the Western plains to the New England kitchen. The odours of the hired man and of domestic dishwater are his favourite perfume; his heroines smirk when Fate jumps upon them with hobnailed boots; his heroes are shaven as blue as any metropolitan waiter and they all are bursting out of their blue flannel shirts with muscular development and abdominal prosperity. That's the sort, Cleland, if you want to make money!" He shrugged his shoulders. "But of course if you don't, well, then, go on and transmute leaden truth with your imagination into the truer metal wrought by art. If there's a story in it, people will excuse the technical excellence; if there isn't, they won't read it. And there you are."
They remained silent for a while, and Spink regarded him shrewdly from moment to moment out of his bright, bold eyes. And he came pretty close to the conclusion that he was wasting time.
"Did you ever make any success with your stuff!" he inquired abruptly.
Cleland shook his head.
"Never heard anything from anything you've done?"
"Once," said Cleland, "a woman wrote me from a hospital that she had read a novel I published in England, when I was living in France… She said it had made her forget pain… It's pleasant to get a letter like that."
"Very," said Spink drily, "unless she meant your book was an anodyne." He laughed his abrupt, harsh laugh and took himself off.
Belter, who haunted the studio now toward noon, so that he could take his wife to luncheon, roared with laughter when Cleland mentioned Spink's visit.
"When there's any rumour of a new man and a new book, Spink's always certain to appear out of a cloudless sky, like a buzzard investigating smoke for possible pickings. If you make good, he'll stick to you like a burdock burr. If you don't, he's too busy to bother you. So he's been around, has he?"
"Watch him, Cleland. Spink is the harbinger of prosperity. He associates himself only with the famous and successful. He is clever, immensely industrious, many sided, diversely talented. He can write, rehearse and stage a play for the Ten Cent Club; he can draw acceptably in any medium; he can write sparkling stuff; his executive ability is enormous, his energy indefatigable. But – that's the man, Cleland. You'll have him at your elbow if you become famous; you'll see only the back of his bushy head if you fail."
Cleland smiled as he ran over the pile of pencilled pages on the desk before him, pausing here and there to cross out, interline, punctuate.
"When Oswald Grismer was rich and promised so well as a sculptor," said Belter, "Spink appeared as usual out of a clear sky, alighted, folded his wings, and hopped gravely beside Grismer until the poor devil came his cropper.
"Now, he's always going somewhere in a hurry when he encounters Grismer, but his 'How are you! Glad to see you!' en passant, is even more cordially effusive than before. For Badger Spink never wittingly makes an enemy, either."
"Poor Spink. He misses a lot," commented Cleland, renumbering some loose pages. "Tell me, Harry, how are things going with you?"
Belter said, na?vely:
"When a man's quite crazy about his wife, everything else goes well."
"That sounds convincing. What a little brick she is! I suppose you're lunching with her."
"Rather!" He looked at his watch. "God knows," he added, "I don't want to bore her, but it would take a machine gun to drive me away… I tell you, Cleland, three years of what I went through leave scars that never entirely heal… I don't yet quite see how she could forgive me."
"I'm trying to understand that she has. I know she has, because she says so. But it's hard to comprehend… She's a very, very wonderful woman, Cleland."
"I can see that."
"And whatever she wishes, I wish. Whatever she desires to do is absolutely all right because she desires it. But, do you know, Cleland, she's sweet enough to ask my opinion? Think of it! – think of her asking my opinion! – willing to consider my wishes after what I've done to her! I tell you no man can study faithfully enough, minutely enough, the character of the girl he loves. I've had my lesson – a terrible one. I told you once that it was killing me – would end me some day. It would have if she had not held out her hand to me… It was the finest, noblest thing any woman has ever done."
All fat men are prone to nervous emotion; Belter got up briskly, but his features were working, and he merely waved his hand in adieu and galloped off down stairs to be in time to join his wife when she emerged from her seance with the white circus horse in Helen's outer workshop.
Cleland, still lingering with fluttering solicitude over his manuscript, heard a step on the stair and Stephanie's fresh young voice in gay derision:
"You're like a fussy old hen, Jim! Let that chick alone and take me somewhere to lunch! I've had a strenuous lesson and I'm starved – "
She dodged his demonstration, eluding him with swift grace, and put the desk between them.
"No! No! I chanced, just now, to witness the meeting of the Belters, and that glimpse of conjugal respectability has stiffened my moral backbone… Besides, I'm deeply worried about you, Jim."
"Certainly. It fills me with anxiety that you should so far degrade yourself as to attempt to kiss a respectable married woman – "
She dodged again, just in time, but he vaulted over the desk and she found herself imprisoned in his arms.
"I'll submit if you don't rumple me," she said. "I've such a darling gown on – be very circumspect, Jim – "
She lifted her face and met his lips, retained them with a little sigh, placing her gloved hands behind his head. They became very still, very serious; her grey eyes grew vague under his deep gaze which caressed them; her arms drew his head closer to her face. Then, very slowly, their lips parted, and she laid her hand on his shoulder and drew his arm around her waist.
In silence they paced the studio for a while, slowly, and in leisurely step with each other deeply preoccupied.
"Steve," he said, "it's the first week in June. The city will be intolerable in a fortnight. Don't you think that we ought to open Runner's Rest?"
"You are going up there with Oswald, aren't you?" she asked, raising her eyes.
"Yes, in a day or two. Don't you think we'd better try to get some servants and open the house for the summer?"
She considered the matter:
"You know I've never been there since you went abroad, Jim. I believe we would find it delightful. Don't you?"
"I do, indeed."
"But – is it going to be all right – just you and I alone there? … You know even when we considered each other as brother and sister there was a serious question about our living together unless an older woman were installed" – she laughed – "to keep us in order. It was silly, then, but – I don't know whether it's superfluous now."
"Would Helen come?"
"Like a shot! Of course that's the solution. We can have parties, too… I wonder what is going to happen to us."
"To you and me, Jim… It's becoming such a custom – your arm around me this way; and that secret and deliciously uneasy thrill I feel when I come to you alone – and all my increasing load of guilt – "
"There's only one end to it, Steve."
"Jim, I can't tell him. I'm afraid! … Something happened once… I was scarcely eighteen – " She suddenly clung to him, pressing her face convulsively against his shoulder. He could feel the shiver passing over her.
"Tell me," he said.
"Not now… There doesn't seem to be any way of letting you understand… I was not yet eighteen. I never dreamed of – of love – between you and me… And Oswald fascinated me. He does now. He always will. There is something about him that draws me, influences me, stirs me deeply – deeply – "
She turned, looked at him, flung one arm around his neck:
"Will you let me tell you this and still understand? It's a – a different kind of affection… But it's deep, powerful – there are bonds that hold me – that I can't break – dare not… Always he was attractive to me – a strange, sensitive, unhappy boy… And then – something happened."
"Will you tell me what?"
"Oh, Jim, it involves a question of honour… I can't betray confidence… Let me tell you something. Did you know that Oswald, ever since you and he were boys together, cared more for your good opinion than for anything else in the world?"
"He is strange. He has told me that, as a boy, one of the things that most deeply hurt him was that he was never invited to your house. And I can see that the fact that dad never took any notice of his father mortified him bitterly."
"What has this to do with you and me, Steve?"
"A great deal, unhappily. The seeds of tragedy lay in the boy's soul of Oswald Grismer – a tender sensitiveness almost girlish, which he concealed by assertiveness and an apparent callous disregard of opinion; a pride so deep that in the shock of injury it became morbid… But, Jim, deep in that unhappy boy's soul lay also nobler qualities – blind loyalty, the generosity that costs something – the tenderness that renounces… Oh, I know – I know. I was only a girl and I didn't understand. I was fascinated by the golden, graceful youth of him – thrilled by the deeper glimpse of that mystery which attracts all women – the veiled unhappiness of a man's secret soul… That drew me; the man, revealed, held me… I have told you that I never dreamed there was any question about you. I was obsessed, wrapped up in this man so admired, so talented, so utterly misunderstood by all the world excepting me. It almost intoxicated me to know that I alone knew him – that I alone was qualified to understand, sympathize, advise, encourage, rebuke this strange, inexplicable golden figure about whom and whose rising talent the world of art was gossiping and guessing all around me."
After a long silence he said:
"Is that all you have to tell me?"
"Nearly all… His father died… My aunt died. These facts seem unrelated. But they were not… And then – then – Oswald lost his money… Everything… And I – married him… There was more than I have told you… I think I may tell this – I had better tell you, perhaps… Did you ever know that my aunt employed lawyers to investigate the matter concerning the money belonging to Chiltern Grismer's sister, who was my mother's mother?"
"She did. I have seen Mr. Grismer at the hospital once or twice. He came to see my aunt in regard to the investigation… The last time he came, my aunt was ill, threatened with pneumonia. I saw him passing through the grounds. He looked frightfully haggard and ill. He came out of the infirmary where my aunt was, in about an hour, and walked slowly down the gravel path as though he were in a daze… He died shortly afterward… And then my aunt died… And Oswald lost his money… And I – married him."
"Is that all you can tell me?"
After a silence she looked up, her lip quivering:
"All except this." And she put her arms around his neck and dropped her head on his breast.
In reply to a letter of hers, Cleland wrote to Stephanie the middle of June from Runner's Rest in the Berkshires:
The place is charming and everything is ready for you and Helen whenever you care to come. I had the caretaker's wife and daughters here for several days' scrubbing and cleaning woodwork, windows and floors. They've put a vacuum cleaner on everything else and the house shines!
As for the new servants, they seem the usual sort, unappreciative, sure to quarrel among themselves, fairly efficient, incapable of gratitude, and likely to leave you in the lurch if the whim seizes them. They've all come to me with complaints of various sorts. The average servant detests clean, fresh quarters in the country and bitterly misses the smelly and oily animation of the metropolitan slums.
But this unpretentious old place is very beautiful, Steve. You haven't been here since you were a girl, and it will be a surprise to you to find how really lovely are this plain old house and simple grounds.
Oswald has made several sketches of the grounds, and is making others for the pool and fountain. He is anything but melancholy; he strolls about quite happily with the eternal cigarette in his mouth and an enormous rose-scented white peony in his button-hole; and in the evening he and I light a fire in the library – for the evenings are a trifle chilly still – and we read or chat or discuss men and affairs most companionably. The occult charm in this man, of which you are so conscious, I myself can perceive. There seems to be, deep within him, an inexplicable quality which appeals – something latent, indefinable – something that you suspect to be wistful, yet which is too sensitive, too self-distrustful to respond to the very sympathy it seems to draw.
Steve, I have asked him to spend July with us. He seemed quite surprised and a little disconcerted by the invitation – just as he seemed to be when I asked him to do the pool and fountain.
He said he would like to come if he could arrange it – whatever that may mean. So it was left that way.
Do you approve?
It will be wonderful to see you here, moving in the garden, standing out yonder on the lawn! – Steve, herself, in her own actual and matchless person! – Steve in the flesh, here under the green old trees of Runner's Rest… Sometimes when I am thinking of you – and I think of practically nothing else! – I seem to see you as you were when last here – a girl in ribbons and white, dancing over the lawn with her chestnut hair flying; or down by the river at the foot of the lawn, wading bare-legged, fussing and poking about among the stones; or lying full-length on the grass under the trees, reading "Quentin Durward" – do you remember? And I used to take you trout-fishing to that mysterious Dunbar Brook up in the forest, where the rush of ice-cold waters and the spray clouding the huge round bowlders always awed you and made you the slightest bit uneasy.
And do you remember the brown pools behind those bowlders, where you cautiously dropped your line; and the sudden scurry of a black shadow in the pool – the swift tug, the jerk and spatter as you flung a speckled trout skyward in mingled joy and consternation?
Runner's Rest has not changed. House and barns need paint; the garden requires your soft white hands to caress it into charming discipline; the house needs you; the lawns are empty without you; the noise of the river rippling on the shoals sounds lonely. The whole place needs you, Steve, to make it logical. And so do I. Because all this has no meaning unless the soul of it shows through.
When I am perplexed, restless, impatient, unhappy, I try to remember that you have given me a bit of your heart; that you realize you have mine entire – every atom of my love, my devotion… There must be some way for us… I don't know what way, because you have thought it necessary to leave me blind. But I shall never give you up – unless you find that you care more for another man.
And now to answer what you have said concerning you and me. I suppose I ought to touch what is, theoretically, another man's. Yet, you do not belong to him. And you have begun to fall a little in love with me, haven't you? And in this incomprehensible pact it was agreed that you retain your liberty until you came to final decision within two years.
I don't understand it; I can't feel that, under the strange circumstances, I am unfair to you or to this strange and unexplained enigma named Oswald Grismer.
As for my attitude toward him, I hope I am free of the lesser jealousy and resentments. I will not allow myself to brood or cherish unworthy malice. I am trying to accept him, with all his evident and unusual qualities, as a man I've got to fight and a man I can't help liking when I let myself judge him honestly.
As for the flimsy, eccentric, meaningless, yet legal tie which links you to him, I care nothing about it. It's got to be broken ultimately – if one can break a shadow without substance.
How to do it without your aid, without knowledge of the facts, without causing you distress for some reason not explained, I don't know. But sooner or later I shall have to know. Because all this, if I brood on it, seems a nightmare – an unreal dream where I struggle, fettered, blindfolded, against the unseen and unknown, striving to win my way through to you.
That is about all I have to say, Steve.
Oswald has just come in with his drawings, to find me writing to you. He seems very cheerful. His design is delightful and quite in keeping with the simplicity of the place – just a big, circular pool made out of native stone, and in the centre a jet around which three stone trout are intertwined under a tumbling spray.
It is charming and will not clash at all with the long, low house with its shutters and dormers and loop-holes, and the little stone forts flanking it.
Telegraph me what day and what train. And tell Helen you and she may bring your maid-of-all-work.JAMES CLELAND, in love with you.
There was no need of a fire in the library that evening at Runner's Rest. The night was mild; a mist bordered the rushing river and stars glimmered high above it.