The Restless Sex
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"It really is, Helen."
Into her hurt face came the pink tint of wrath again; but she sat quite still, her head lowered, pulling fronds from the fern on her lap.
"I'm sorry if you're offended," he said cheerfully, and lighted a cigarette.
Helen's troubled face cooled; she tore tiny shreds of living green from the fern; her remote eyes rested on him, on the blue hills across the valley, on the river below them, sparkling under the July sun.
Down there, Marie Belter, with her red parasol, was sauntering across the pasture, and Harry paddled faithfully beside her, fanning his features with his straw hat.
"There goes Marie and Fido," said Grayson, laughing. "Good Lord! After all, it's a dog's life at any angle you care to view it."
"What is a dog's life?" inquired Helen crisply.
"Marriage, dear child."
"OK. Do you view it that way?"
"I do… But we dogs were invented for it. After all, I suppose we prefer to live our dogs' lives to any other – we human Fidos – "
"Phil! You never before gave me any reason to believe you a cynical materialist. And you have been very unjust and disagreeable to me. Do you know it?"
"I'm tired of running at your heels, I suppose… A dog knows when he's welcome… After a while the lack of mutual sympathy gets on his nerves, and he strays by the roadside… And sometimes, if lonely, the owner of another pair of heels will look behind her and find him paddling along… That's the life of the dog, Helen – with exceptions like that cur of Bill Sykes. But the great majority of pups won't stay where they're lonely for such love as they offer. For your dog must have love… The love of the human god he worships. Or of some other god."
He laughed lightly:
"And I, who worship a goddess for her divine genius and her loveliness – I have trotted at her heels a long, long time, Helen, and I'm just beginning to understand, in my dog's heart, that my divinity does not want me."
"I – I do want you!"
"No, you don't. You haven't enough emotion in you to want anybody. You're too complete, too self-satisfied, too intellectual, too clever to understand a heart's desire – the swift, unselfish, unfeigned, uncalculated passion that makes us human. There's nothing to you but intellect and beauty. And I'm fed up!"
The girl rose, flushed and disconcerted by his brutality. Grayson got up, bland, imperturbable, accepting her departure pleasantly.
She meant to go back all alone down the hillside; that was evident in her manner, in her furious calmness, in her ignoring the tiny handkerchief which he recovered from the moss and presented.
She was far too angry to speak. He stood under the trees and watched her as she descended the hillside toward the house, just visible below.
Down she went through the heated wild grass and ferns, stepping daintily over gulleys, avoiding jutting rocks, down, ever down hill, receding farther and farther from his view until, a long way below him, he saw her halt, a tiny, distant figure shining white and motionless in the sun.
He waited for her to move on again out of sight.She did not.
After a long while he saw her lift one arm and beckon him.
"Am I a Fido?" he asked himself. "Damn it, I believe I am." And he started leisurely down hill.
When he joined her where she stood waiting, her brown eyes avoided his glance and the colour in her cheeks grew brighter.
"If you believe," she said, "that my mind controls my heart, why don't you make it an intellectual argument with me? Why not appeal to my reason? Because I – I am intelligent enough to be open to conviction – if your logic proves sounder than – mine."
"I can't make love to you logically. Love doesn't admit of it."
"Love is logical – or it's piffle!"
"I don't know how to make intellectual love."
"You'd better learn."
"Could you give me a tip?" he asked timidly.
Then Helen threw back her pretty head and began to laugh with that irresponsible, unfeigned, full-throated and human laughter that characterized the primitive girl when her na?ve sense of humour was stirred to response by her lover of the cave.
For Helen had caught a glimpse of this modern young caveman's intellectual brutality and bad temper for the first time in her life, and it was a vital revelation to the girl.
He had whacked her, verbally, violently, until, in her infuriated astonishment, it was made plain to her that there was much more to him than she had ever reckoned with. He had hurt her pride, dreadfully, he had banged her character about without mercy – handled her with a disdainful vigour and virility that opened her complacent brown eyes to a new vision and a new interpretation of man.
"Phil," she murmured, "do you realize that you were positively common in what you said to me up on that hill?"
"I know I was."
"You told me – " a slight shudder passed over her and he felt it in the shoulder that touched his – "you told me that you – you were 'fed up!'"
"And you, a poet – a man with an almost divine facility of language – "
"Sure," he said, grinning; "I'm artist enough to know the value of vulgarity. It gives a wonderful punch, Helen – once in a lifetime."
"Oh, Phil! You horrify me. I didn't understand that you are just a plain, every-day, bad-tempered, brutal, selfish and violent man – "
"Dearest, I am! And thank God you are woman enough to stand for it… Are you?"
They had reached the house and were standing on the porch now, her hands restlessly twisting in his sun-browned grasp, her pretty head averted, refusing to meet his eyes.
"Are you?" he repeated sternly.
"Am I, what? Oh, Phil, you hurt me – my rings hurt – "
"Then don't twist your fingers. And answer me; are you woman enough to stand for the sort of everyday human man that you say I am? Are you?"
She said something under her breath.
"Did you say yes?" he demanded.
She nodded, not looking at him.
Before he could kiss her she slid out of his grasp with a low exclamation of warning, and, looking around, he beheld the Belters, arm-in-arm, approaching across the lawn.
"Fido!" he muttered, "damn!" And he followed his divinity into the house.
Helen kept her own council as long as the Belters remained at Runner's Rest, but as soon as they had departed she went to Stephanie's room and made a clean breast of it.
"What on earth do you suppose has happened to me, Steve?" she demanded, standing by the day-bed on which Stephanie was stretched out reading a novel and absorbing chocolates.
"What?" asked Stephanie, lifting her grey eyes.
"Well, there's the very deuce to pay with Phil Grayson. He isn't a bit nice to me. He isn't like himself. He bullies me."
"Why do you let him?"
"I – don't know. I resent it. He's entirely too bossy. He's taken possession of me and he behaves abominably."
"But you don't have to endure it!" exclaimed Stephanie, astonished.
"If I don't submit," said Helen, "I shall lose him. He'll go away. He says he will."
"Well, do you care what Phil Grayson does?" demanded Stephanie, amazed.
Then that intellectual, capable, intelligent and superbly healthy girl flopped down on her knees by Stephanie's day-bed and, laying her lovely head on the pillow, began to whimper.
"I – I don't know what's the matter with me," she stammered, "but my mind is full of that wretched man every minute of the day and half of the night. He is absolutely shameless; he makes love to me t-tyranically. It's impossible for a girl to keep her reserve – her d-dignity with a m-man who takes her into his arms and k-kisses her whenever he chooses – "
"What!" cried Stephanie, sitting bolt upright and staring at her friend. "Do you mean to tell me that Phil is that sort of man?"
"I didn't think so, either," explained Helen. "I've known him for ages. He's been so considerate and attentive and sweet to me – so gentle and self-effacing. I thought I could c-count on him. But a girl can't tell anything about a man – even when he's been an old and trusted friend of years."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Stephanie, blankly.
"Do? I suppose I'll go on doing what he wishes. I suppose I'll marry him. It looks that way. I don't seem to have any will power… It's such an odd sensation to be bullied."
"Are you in love with him?"
"I don't know. I suppose I am. It makes me simply furious… But I guess I am, Steve… If he'd behaved as agreeably and pleasantly as he always had behaved I should never have cared for him except in a friendly way. He always has paid his courtship to me in the nicest way… It was quite ideal, not disturbing, and we exchanged intellectual views quite happily and contentedly… And then, suddenly he – he flew into a most frightful temper and he told me that he was 'fed up!' My dear, can you imagine my rage and amazement? … And then he told me what he thought of me – oh, Steve! – the most horrid things ever said about a girl he said to me! I was breathless! I felt as though he had beaten me and dragged me about by my hair… And then – I don't know how it happened – but I w-waited for him, and we walked home together, and I understood him to say that I'd got to love him if I were a human girl… And I am… So – it's that way now with us… And when I think about it I am still bewildered and furious with him… But I don't dare let him go… There are other girls, you know."
Stephanie lay very still. Helen rose presently, turned and walked slowly to the door. There she paused for a moment, then turned. And Stephanie saw in her brown eyes an expression entirely new to her.
"Helen! You are in love with him!" she said.
"I'm afraid I am… Anyway, I shall not let him go until I am quite certain… It's abominable that he should have made of me a thing with which I never have had any patience – a girl whose heart has run away with her senses. And that's what he has done to me, I'm afraid."
Stephanie suddenly flushed:
"If he has," she said, "you ought to be glad! You are free to marry him if you love him, and you ought to thank God for the privilege."
"Yes. But what is marriage going to do to my work? I never meant to marry. I've been afraid to. What happens to a girl's creative work if her heart is full of something else – full of her lover – her husband – children, perhaps – new duties, new cares! … I didn't want to love this man. I loved my work. It took all of me. It's the very devil to have a thing like this happen. It scares me. I can't think of my work now. It bores me to recollect it. My mind and heart are full of this man! – there's no room in it for anything else… What is this going to do to my career? That's what frightens me to think about… And I can't give up sculpture, and I won't give up Phil! Oh, Steve, it's the very deuce of a mess – it really is. And you lie there eating chocolates and reading piffle, and you calmly tell me to thank God that I am free to marry!"
Stephanie's clear grey eyes regarded her:
"If you're any good," she said, "your career will begin from the moment you fell in love. Love clears the mind wonderfully. You learn a lot about yourself when you fall in love… I learned that I had no talent, nothing to express. That's what love has done for me. But you will learn what genius really means."
Helen came slowly back to where the girl was lying.
"You are in love, then," she said gently. "I was afraid."
"I am afraid, too."
They looked at each other in silence.
"Do you ever mean to live with Oswald?" asked Helen.
"Not if I can avoid it."
"Can you not?"
"Yes, I can avoid it – unless the price of immunity is too heavy."
"I don't understand."
"I know you don't. Neither does Jim. It's a rather ghastly situation."
"You are not at liberty to explain it, are you?"
Helen bent and laid her hand on Stephanie's hair:
"I'm sorry. I knew you were falling in love. There seemed to be no help for either of you."
"No, no help. One can't help one's heart's inclinations. The only thing we can control is our behaviour."
"Steve, are you unhappy?"
"I'm beginning to be… I didn't think I would be – it's so wonderful… But the seriousness of love reveals itself sooner or later… A girl begins to understand… All we want is to give, if we're in love… It's tragic when we can't." She turned her face abruptly and laid one arm across her eyes.
Helen sank to her knees again and laid her cool face against Stephanie's flushed cheek.
"Darling," she said, "there must be some way for you."
"No honourable way."
"But that marriage is a farce."
"Yes. I made it so… But Oswald cares for me."
"Yes… He is a very wonderful, generous, unhappy man; proud, deeply sensitive, tender-hearted, and loyal. I can not sacrifice him. He has done too much for my sake… And I promised – "
"I promised him to give myself as long a time as he wished to learn whether I could ever come to love him."
"Does he know you are in love?"
"What would he do if he knew?"
Stephanie began to tremble:
"I – don't know," she stammered, " – he must never think that I am in love with Jim… It would be – dreadful – terrible – "
She sat up, covering her face with both hands:
"Don't ask me! Don't talk about it! There are things I can't tell you – things I can't do, no matter what happens to me – no matter whether I am unhappy – whether Jim is – "
"Don't cry, darling. I didn't mean to hurt you – "
"Oh, Helen! Helen! There's something that happened which I can't ever forget. It terrifies me. There's no way out of this marriage for me – there's no way! No way!" she repeated desolately… "And I'm so deeply in love – so deeply – deeply – "
She flung herself on her face and buried her head in her arms.
"Just let me alone," she sobbed. "I can't talk about it. I – I'm glad you're happy, dear. But please go out, now!"
Helen rose and stood for a moment looking down at the slender figure in its jewelled kimono and its tumbled splendour of chestnut hair. Then she went out very quietly.
On the porch her audacious young man and Cleland were smoking and consulting time-tables, and she gave the former a swift glance which questioned his intentions. He seemed to comprehend, for he said:
"It's Jim. He's been talking to Oswald on the long distance wire, and he's going down to town to see the model that Oswald has made."
"Are you going, too?" she asked.
"Not until you do," he said boldly.
Helen blushed furiously and glanced at Cleland, but he had not paid them any attention, apparently, for he rose with an absent air and went into the house.
"Steve!" he called from the foot of the stairs. "I'm going to town to-night, if you don't mind."
There was no answer. He ran lightly up the stairs and glanced through her door, which was partly open. Then he went in.
She did not hear him, nor was she aware of his presence until she felt his questioning hand on her tumbled hair. Then she turned over, looked up into his anxious face, stretched out her arms to him in a sudden passion of loneliness and longing, and drew him convulsively to her breast with a little sob of surrender. And the next instant she had slipped through his arms to the floor, sprung to her feet, and now stood breathing fast and unevenly as he rose, half dazed, to confront her.
"Jim," she said unsteadily, "I had better go back. I'm losing my head here with you – here under dad's roof. Do you hear what I say? I can't trust myself. I can't remain here and tear dad's honour to shreds just because I've gone mad about you… I'm going back."
"It's the only safety for us. There's no use. No hope, either. And it's too dangerous – with no outlook, no possible chance that waiting may help us. There's not a ghost of a chance that we ever can marry. That is the real peril for us… So – I'll play the game… I'll go to him now – before it's too late, – before you and I have made each other wretched for life – and before I have something still worse on my conscience!"
"My husband's death! He'll kill himself if I let you take me away somewhere."
After a silence he said in a low voice:
"Is that what you have been afraid of?"
"You believe he will kill himself if you divorce him?"
"I – I am certain of it."
"Why are you certain?"
"I can't tell you why."
He said coolly:
"Men don't do that sort of thing as a rule. Weak intellects seek that refuge from trouble; but his is not a weak character."
"I won't talk about it," she said. "I've told you more than I ever meant to. Now you know where I stand, what I fear – his death! – if I dishonour dad's memory and go away with you. And if I ask divorce, he will give it to me – and then kill himself. Do you think I could accept even you on such terms as these?"
"No," he said.
He looked at her intently. She stood there very white, now, her grey eyes and the masses of chestnut hair accentuating her pallour.
"All right," he said, "I'll take you to town."
"You need not."
"Won't you let me?"
"Yes, if you wish… When you go downstairs, tell them to send up my trunks. Tell one of the maids to come."
"You can't go off this way, to-night. You've two guests here," he said in a dull voice.
"You will be here."
"Oswald called me on the long distance wire an hour ago. He has asked me to go to town and look at the sketch he has made for the fountain. I said I'd go."
She dropped to the couch and sat there with grey eyes remote, her shoulders, in their jewelled kimono, huddled under her heavy mass of hair.
"Stay here for a while, anyway," he said. "There's no use taking such action until you have thought it over. And such action is not necessary, Steve."
"No. There is a much simpler solution for us both. I shall go abroad."
"What!" she exclaimed sharply, lifting her head.
"Of course. Why should you be driven into the arms of a husband you do not love just because you are afraid of what you and I might do? That would be a senseless proceeding, Steve. The thing to do is to rid yourself of me and live your life as you choose."
She laid her head on her hands, pressing her forehead against her clenched fingers.
"That's the only thing to do, I guess," he said in his curiously colourless voice. "I came too late. I'm paying for it. I'll go back to Paris and stay for a while. Time does things to people."
She nodded her bowed head.
"Time," he said, "forges an armour on us all… I'll wait until mine is well riveted before I return. You're quite right, Steve… You and I can't go on this way. There would come a time when the intense strain would break us both – break down our resolution and our sense of honour – and we'd go away together – or make each other wretched here… Because there's no real happiness for you and me without honour, Steve. Some people can do without it. We can't.
"We might come to think we could. We might take the chance. We might repeat the stale old phrase and try to 'count the world well lost.' But there would be no happiness for you and me, Steve. For, to people of our race, happiness is composite. Honesty is part of it; loyalty to ideals is another; the world's respect, the approval of our own hearts, the recognition of our responsibility to the civilization that depends on such as we – all these are part of the only kind of happiness that you and I can understand and experience… So we must give it up… And the best way is the way I offer… Let me go out of your life for a while… Live your own life as you care to live it… Time must do whatever else is to be done."
The girl lifted her dishevelled head and looked at him.
"Are you going to-night?"
"You are not coming back?"
She dropped her head again.
There was a train at four that afternoon. He took a gay and casual leave of Helen and Grayson, where he found them reading together in the library.
"Will you be back to-morrow?" inquired the latter.
"I'm not sure. I may be detained for some time," said Cleland carelessly. And went upstairs.
Stephanie, frightfully pale, came to her door. Her hair was dressed and she was gowned for the afternoon. She tried to speak but no sound came from her colourless lips; and she laid her hands on his shoulders in silence. Their lips scarcely touched before they parted; but their eyes clung desperately.
"Good-bye," she whispered.
"You know I love you. You know I shall never love another woman?"
"Try to – forget me, Jim."
"I can't forget you, either… I'm sorry, dear. I wish you had me… I'd give you anything, Jim – anything. Don't you know it?"
She laid her head on his breast, rested a moment, then lifted it, not looking at him, and turned slowly back into her room.
It was dark when he arrived in New York. The flaring streets of the city seemed horrible to him.
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