The Restless Sex
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Every great tree loomed huge and dark and still, the foliage piled up fantastically against the sky-line. There was an odour of iris in the night; and silence, save for the dull stamping of horses in the stable.
Cleland, deep in an arm-chair on the porch, became aware of Grismer's tall shape materializing from the fog about him.
"It's a wonderful place, Cleland," he said with a graceful, inclusive gesture. "All this sweet, vague mystery – this delicate grey dark appeals to me – satisfies, rests me… As though this were the abode of the Blessed Shades, and I were of them… And the rest were ended."
He seated himself near the other and gazed toward the mist out of which the river's muffled roar came to them in ceaseless, ghostly melody.
"Charon waits at every river, they say," he remarked, lighting a cigarette. "I fancy he must employ a canoe down there."
"The Iroquois once did. The war trail crossed there. When they burned Old Deerfield they came this way."
"The name of your quaint and squatty old house is unusual," said Grismer.
"Runner's Rest? Yes, in the Indian wars before the Revolution, the Forest Runners could find food and shelter here. The stone forts defended it and it was never burned."
"You inherited it?"
"Yes. It belonged to a Captain Cleland in those remote days."
There was a long silence. The delicately fresh odour of grey iris became more apparent – a perfume that, somehow, Cleland associated with Stephanie.
Grismer said in a pleasant, listless voice:
"You are a happy man, Cleland."
"Here, under the foliage of your forefathers," mused Grismer aloud, "you should rest contented that the honour of an honourable line lies secure in your keeping."
"I don't know how honourable they were, but I've never heard of any actual criminals among them."
"That's a great deal." He dropped one lean, well-shaped hand on the arm of his chair. The cigarette burned between his pendant fingers, spicing the air with its aromatic scent.
"It's a great deal to have a clean family record," he said again. "It is the greatest thing in the world – the most desirable… The other makes existence superfluous."
"You mean dishonour?"
"Yes. The stain spreads. You can't stop it. It taints the generations that follow. They can't escape."
"That's nonsense," said Cleland. "Because a man had a crook for a forebear he isn't a crook himself."
"No. But the stain is in his heart and brain."
"Maybe… But, Cleland, there are people whose most intense desire is to be respectable. It is a ruling passion, inherent, unreasoning, vital to their happiness and peace of mind. Did you know that?"
"I suppose I can imagine such a person."
"Yes. I suppose such a person is not normal. In them, hurt pride is more serious than a wound of the flesh. And pride, mortally wounded, means to them mental and finally physical death."
"Such a person is abnormal and predestined to unhappiness," said Cleland impatiently.
"Predestined," repeated Grismer in his pleasant, even voice."Yes, there's something wrong with them. But they are born so. Nobody knows what a mental hell they endure. Things that others would scarcely notice they shrink from. Their souls are raw, quivering things within them that agonize over a careless slight, that wither under disapproval, that become paralyzed under an affront.
"Their fiercest, deepest, most vital desire is to be welcomed, approved, respected. Without kindness they become deformed; and crippled pride does strange, perverse things to their brain and tongue.
"There are such people, Cleland… Predestined … to suffering and to annihilation… Weaklings … all heart and unprotected nerves … passing their brief lives in desperate and grotesque attempts to conceal what they are… Superfluous people, undesirable … foredoomed."
He dropped his cigarette upon the drenched grass, whore it glimmered an instant and went out.
"Cleland," he said in a singularly gentle voice, "I once told you that I wished you well. You did not understand. Let me put it a little plainer… Is there anything I can do for you? Is there anything I can refrain from doing which might add to your contentment?"
"That's an odd thing to ask," returned the other.
"No. It is merely friendship speaking – a very deep friendship, if you can understand it."
"You're very kind, Grismer… I don't know quite how to take it – or how to answer. There is nothing that you can do for me – nothing one man could ask of another – "
"Ask it, all the same."
"Then I'll offer it… I give up – Stephanie – to you."
The silence lasted a long time. Neither man stirred. Finally Cleland said in an altered voice:
"I can't ask it – unless she does, too. I don't know what to say to you, Grismer, except that no man ever spoke more nobly – "
"That is enough. If you really think it, that means everything, Cleland… And this is my chance to tell you that when I – married her – I never dreamed that it could ever be a question of you… I don't believe she did, either… But it has become so. That is the question, now… And so I – step out."
"I – I tell you I can't accept – that way – unless she asks it, too," stammered Cleland… "After all, it's got to be on a basis of her happiness… I am not sure that her happiness lies in my keeping. I do not know how much she cares for you – how deeply you are engaged in her heart… I can't find out… I'm like a blind man involved in a maze!"
"She cares for me," said Grismer in his low, pleasant voice. "We have been intimate in mind – close and responsive, intellectually… Sentimentally, too. On her part a passionless loyalty to whatever in me she believed appealed to her intelligence and imagination; an emotional solicitude for what she discovered in me that aroused her sympathy – "
He turned and looked at Cleland in the darkness:
"Hers is a tender heart, Cleland. Impulse carries it to extremes. Injustice to another provokes quick action from her; and nothing so sways her as her intense sense of gratitude, unless it be her fear of wounding others.
"I shall have to tell you more, some day. If I do, it will be more than I would do for anybody else alive – the ultimate sacrifice of pride."
He rose and stood gazing out across the mist at a far star above it, glimmering with dimmed brilliancy all alone.
"It couldn't have been," he said, half to himself. "I always knew it. Not that the thought of you ever crossed my mind. I knew it would come somehow. It simply couldn't be."
He turned to Cleland with a sudden laugh that sounded light and natural:
"This is to be no tragedy. It will disentangle itself easily and simply. I am very sure that she is in love with you. Tell her what I have said to you… And – good night, old chap."
Stephanie and Helen arrived, bringing a mountain of baggage and the studio cat – an animal evidently unacquainted with the larger freedom of outdoors, and having no cosmic urge, for when deposited upon the lawn it fled distracted, and remained all day upon a heap of coal in the cellar, glaring immovably upon blandishment.
"Oh!" cried Stephanie, standing on the lawn and quite enchanted by the old place. "It is simply too lovely! It's like a charming doll's house – it's so much smaller than I remember it! Helen, did you ever see such trees! And isn't the garden a dear! Listen to the noise of the river! Did you ever hear anything as refreshing as that endless rippling? Where is Oswald, Jim?"
"He went back to town this morning."
"How mean of him!"
"I tried to keep him," said Cleland, "but he insisted that it was really a matter of business. And, of course, I had nothing more to say."
"Did he have a good time here?" asked Stephanie in a guileless voice. But she looked sideways at him.
"I think so, Steve. He seemed carefree and vastly contented to rove over the place. I planned to go with him after trout, but he preferred to prowl about the lawn or smoke on the porch… I am glad he came. I have learned to like him very much."
"You're a dear!" she murmured under her breath, her grey eyes fixed on him and full of a gay tenderness tinged with humour. "You always do the right thing, Jim; you are right, that's the reason. Do you wonder that I'm quite mad about you? – I, who am all wrong."
"Who says you are all wrong?" he demanded, starting toward her. But she deftly avoided him, putting the sun dial between them. And, leaning on it with both elbows, her face framed in her hands, she let her eyes look gay defiance into his.
"I'm all wrong," she said. "You don't know it, but I am."
"Do you want to be punished?"
She laughed tormentingly, feeling delightfully secure from his demonstrations there on the sunny lawn, with Helen wandering about inspecting the flowers in the garden, and the hired man unloading the luggage at the side-door.
"Come on, Helen!" she called gaily. "We can have a bath; there's plumbing in the house, you know. Where do you suppose that poor cat is hidden?"
Helen came from the garden with a blue pansy between her lips, which she presently drew through Cleland's lapel.
"A bribe, dear friend. I wish to go fishing," she said. "Stephanie has been telling me about her girlhood days here with you, and how you took her on several sacred occasions to a mysterious, dashing stream full of huge bowlders – somewhere deep in the primeval woods – "
"The Dunbar brook, Jim," smiled Stephanie. "Shall we go fishing in the morning? I'm not going to spend all my time fussing with domestic problems."
"The cares of housekeeping sit lightly on her," remarked Helen, as they all strolled toward the porch. "What if the new servants are slack and wasteful? Being a man you wouldn't know; being Steve, she doesn't worry. I see that it's going to devolve on me. Is it possible to run two baths in this house at the same time?"
"Is it?" inquired Stephanie of Cleland. "I forget."
"Yes," he replied, "if you don't draw too much hot water."
"Take yours first, Helen," she said. "I'll sit in this cool library and gossip with Jim for a while."
She unpinned her hat and flung it on a sofa, untied a large box of bonbons, and careless of her charmingly disordered hair, vaulted to a seat on the massive centre table – a favourite perch of hers when a young girl.
Helen lingered to raid the bonbons; Cleland immediately began his pet theme:
"Why do Americans eat candy? Because the nation doesn't know how to cook! The French don't stuff themselves with candy. There isn't, in Paris, a candy-shop to the linear mile! That's because French stomachs, being properly fed with properly and deliciously cooked food, don't crave candy. But in a country noted for its wretched and detestable bread – "
"Oh, you always say that," remarked Stephanie. "Some day I'll go over and find out how much truth there is in your tirades. Meanwhile, I shall consume candy."
"When you go over," he said, "you'll go with me." His voice was low. Helen had strolled into the "best room" and was standing there with a bitter chocolate between her fingers, contemplating the old-time furniture.
"When I go over to Paris," said Stephanie airily, "I shall invite whom I choose."
"Who will it be?"
"Oh, some agreeable young man who isn't too bossy," she returned airily. "Somebody who doesn't try to place me in a day nursery while he goes about and has his fling. But, of course, that doesn't mean you. You've had your fling, haven't you?"
"Not too violently," he said.
"That is your story. But I think I'll investigate it when I go over, and tell you what I've found out when I return."
Helen finished her chocolate and came back. "Where the dickens is that unhappy cat, do you suppose?" she inquired.
"Oh, she'll turn up at dinner-time," Cleland reassured her. "Do you know where your room is, Helen?"
"How should I?" returned that young lady, " – never having been in the house before – "
"Dear, forgive me!" cried Stephanie, jumping from her perch and passing one arm around Helen's shoulders.
They went away together, the former waving a saucy adieu to Cleland behind her back, without turning. She did not return.
So he concluded to get himself into fresh flannels, the late afternoon having grown very warm and promising a close and humid evening.
But when he descended again from his room, he found nobody except the cat, who, sadly disfigured by coal-dust, advanced toward him with amiable intention.
"Very fine, old girl," he said, "but you need a bath, too." So he rang and sent for some butter, dabbed a little on the cat's nose; and in ten seconds she had begun a thorough and minute toilet, greatly to Cleland's edification.
"Keep it up," he said, much interested, watching the pink tongue travelling over the fur, and the velvet paw scrubbing away industriously. "Good old cat! Go to it! Take the whole course – massage, shampoo, manicure, whiskers ironed! By Jove, you're coming out brand new!"
The cat paused to blink at him, sniff for a moment some faint perfume of distant cooking, unnoticed by his less delicate nostrils, then she settled down to the business in hand. And when a cat does that she feels that she is entirely at home.
Not until a maid announced dinner did the two girls appear, both arrayed in that filmy and dainty flyaway apparel suitable only to youth and freshness.
"We had naps," remarked Stephanie shamelessly, and with a slightly malicious humour in her smile, for she knew that Cleland had expected her to return for the ten-minutes' gossip she had suggested.
"You should see your cat! She's polished within an inch of her life – "
A loud mew by his chair announced the regenerated animal's advent.
Stephanie fed it with odd morsels from time to time, and cautioned the waitress to prepare a banquet for it after dinner.
It was still daylight when they strolled out into the garden. The tree-clad eastern ridge was all ruddy in the rays of a declining sun; the river dull silver save in pools where pearl and pink tints tinged the stiller water. Birds were very noisy, robins gallantly attacking a gay carol which they always found impossible to vary or bring to any convincing musical conclusion; song sparrows sweetly monotonous; an exquisite burst of melody from a rose-grosbeak high on a balsam-tip above the stream; the rushing twitter of chimney swifts sweeping by, mounting, fluttering, sheering through the sunset sky.
Helen, pausing by the sun-dial, read aloud what was chiselled there, black with encrusted lichens.
"Who wrote this?" she asked curiously.
"Some bandit of the back-woods, some wilderness fur trader or ruthless forest runner – with murder on his soul, perhaps. I don't remember now. But my father made a note of the story."
She read the straggling lines again, slowly:
"How odd and quaint," she mused, " – and what straggling, primitive, illiterate letters these are, chiselled here in this black basalt. Fancy that gaunt, grim, buck-skinned runner emerging from the wilderness into this solitary settlement, finding shelter and refreshment; and, in his brief hour of rest and idleness, labouring to leave his record on this old stone!"
"His was a poet's soul," said Cleland, " – but he probably took an Iroquois scalp when unobserved, and skinned living and dead impartially in his fur transactions."
"Some degenerate son of honest English stock, I suppose," nodded Helen. "Yet, he had the simplicity of the Cavalier verse-makers in his gracious heart… Well, for his sake – "
She laid a June rose on the weather-ravaged dial. "God rest him, anyway!" she added lightly. "There's a devil in every one of us."
"Not in you, darling," cooed Stephanie, enlacing her waist. "If there ever was, he's dead."
"I wonder." … She glanced deliberately at Cleland, then smiled:
"There was a bully romance I read in extreme youth, in which an old swashbuckler was always exclaiming: 'Courage! The devil is dead!' And since I have realized that I, also, harboured a devil, the memory of that cheery war-cry always puts me on my mettle to slay him… It's a good fight, Jim," she added, serenely. "But a really good fight is never finished, you know. And it's better to end the story with, 'so they lived to fight happily ever after,' than to announce that the problem is solved, the romance ended for eternity."
In the pink dusk she picked her way over the dewy grass toward the porch, saying carelessly that her ancient bones resented dampness.
Stephanie, resting against the sun-dial, inhaled the sweetness of the iris and spoke of it.
"The flowers are lilac-grey, like your eyes," he said. "The scent expresses you to me – faintly sweet – a young, fresh, delicate odour —you– in terms of perfume."
"Such a poet! … But you know one never should touch the petals of an iris… The indiscreet imprint remains."
"Have I left any imprint?"
"I should say you had! Do you suppose my mind isn't busy most of the time remembering your – imprints?"
"Does it comfort you to know it? Nobody else ever pawed me."
"A nice way to put it!" he remarked.
"I don't know how it was I first permitted it – came to endure it – " She lifted her grey eyes deliberately, " – invited it … because I came to expect it – wish for it – " She bit her lip and made a quick gesture with clenched hand. "Oh, Jim, I'm no good! Here I am married, and as nonchalantly unfaithful to my vows as you care to make me – "
She turned abruptly and walked across the lawn toward the willows that fringed the stream, moving leisurely, pensively, her hands linked behind her back. He rejoined her at the willows and they slowly entered the misty belt of trees together.
"If you knew," she said, "what a futile, irresolute, irresponsible creature I am, you wouldn't waste real love on me. There's nothing to me except feminine restlessness, mental and physical, and it urges, urges, urges me to wander frivolously in pursuit of God knows what —I don't! But always my mind is a traveller impatient to go a-gypsying, and my feet beat the devil's tattoo – "
She sprang from the pebbles to a flat river stone projecting from the shore and stood poised, looking out across the rushing water at the mist curling there along the crests of little hurrying waves. A firefly drifted through it; above, unseen, night-hawks called persistently. She turned her head toward him expectantly.
There was room enough on the rock and he stepped to her side.
"I'm like that water," she said, "making a futile noise in the world, dashing and rippling along without any plan of my own, any destination. When I'm honest with myself, I know that it isn't the intellectual desire for self-expression that keeps me restless; it's merely and solely the instinct to ripple and bubble and dance and flow out under the stars and sunsets and dawns – and go sparkling and swirling and glimmering purposelessly away out into the world at random… And that's all there is to Stephanie Quest! – if you really desire to know – you very romantic and foolish boy, who think yourself in love with her!"
She looked up and laughed at his sober face.
"Dear novelist," she said, "it's common realism, not romantic fiction, that has us in its clutches. We're caught by the commonplace. If life were only like one of your novels, with some definite beginning, an artistic plot full of action running toward a properly planned climax! – but it isn't! It begins in the middle and ends nowhere. And here's another trouble with real life; there aren't any villains. And that's fatal to me as your heroine, Jim, for I can't be one unless I'm furnished with a foil."
"Steve," he said, "if you are not everything that my mind and heart believe you to be, the time is past when it makes any difference to me what you are."
"Oh, Jim, is it really as serious as that? Can you stand for a mindless, purposeless girl of unmoral and nomadic proclivities who really hasn't a single gift – no self to express, no creative or interpretive talent – with nothing but an inordinate, unquiet curiosity to find out everything there is to find out – a mental gypsy, lazy, self-indulgent, pleasure-loving, irresponsible – "
He began to laugh:
"All that is covered by one word – 'intelligent,'" he said. "You're just human, with a healthy intellect and normal inclinations."
"Oh, dear, you're so dreadfully wrong. I'm a fraud – nice to look at and to stroll with – "
She turned and stepped across to the pebbled shore. He followed. She bent her head and, not looking at him, drew his arm around her waist and held it there with one hand across his.
"I'm desperately in love," she said, "but I'm a sham – agreeable to caress, pliant, an apt pupil – pretty material for a sweetheart, Jim – but for nothing more important." … They walked slowly along the shore path down stream under the silver willows, his arm enlacing her supple figure, her slow, deliberate steps in rhythm with his.
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