The Restless Sex
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Washington Square seemed to him a little cooler than the streets to the northward; the white arch, the trees, the splash of water made a difference. But beyond, southward, narrow streets and lanes were heavy with the close, hot odours of the slums – a sickening smell of over-ripe fruit piled on push-carts, the reek of raw fish, of sour malt from saloons – a subtler taint of opium from blind alleys where Chinese signs hung from rusting iron balconies.
Through cracks between drawn curtains behind the window of Grismer's basement studio, light glimmered; and when Cleland pulled the bell-wire in the area he could hear the crazy, cracked bell jangling inside.
For a second he hesitated behind the iron area gate, then recognizing her visitor opened for him.
They shook hands with a pleasant, commonplace word or two of civility, and walked together through the dark, hot passageway into the lighted basement.
"It's devilish hot," said Grismer. "There's probably a storm brewing over Staten Island."
He looked colourless and worn. There was a dew of perspiration on his forehead, which dampened the thick amber-gold hair. He wore only a gauze undershirt, trousers and slippers, under which his supple, graceful figure was apparent.
"Grismer," said Cleland uneasily, "this cellar is hell in July. Why won't you come up to Runner's Rest for the hot period? You can't do anything here. You can't stand it."
Grismer fished a siphon out of his ice-box and looked around with a questioning smile. "I've some orange juice. Would you like some?"
Cleland nodded and walked over to a revolving table on which the wax model of his fountain stood. Grismer presently came up beside him with both glasses, and he took his with an absent nod, but continued to examine the model in silence.
"Probably you don't care for it," suggested Grismer.
Cleland said slowly:
"You gave me a different idea. I didn't know you were going to do anything like this."
"I'm afraid you are disappointed."
"No… It's beautiful, Grismer. I hadn't thought that a figure would be possible, considering the character of the place and the very simple and primitive surroundings. But this is in perfect taste and amazingly in accord with everything."
He looked at the slim, naked, sinuous figure – an Indian girl of fifteen drinking out of cupped hands. Wild strawberry vines in full fruit bound her hair, which fell in two clubbed braids to her shoulders. A narrow breadth of faun-skin fell from a wampum girdle to her knees. And, from the thin metal forehead-fillet, the head of a snake reared, displaying every fang.
"It's the Lake-Serpent, isn't it? – the young Oneida girl of the Iroquois legend?" inquired Cleland.
"That's your country," he said. "The Iroquois war-trail passed through your valley and down the river to Charlemont and Old Deerfield. I read up on it.The story of the Lake-Serpent and the Eight Thunders fascinated me. I thought the thing might be done."
"You've done it. It's stunning."
"The water," explained Grismer, "flows out of her hollowed hands, out of the serpent's throat and down each braid of hair, dripping on her shoulders. Her entire body will appear to be all glimmering with a thin skin of running water. I shall use the 'serpent spot' on her forehead like a caste-mark, I think. And what I want to get is an effect from a fine cloud of spray which will steam up from the basin at her feet like the 'cloud on the water' which the legend speaks of. I can get it by an arrangement of very minute orifices through which spray will rush and hang over the water in a sort of rainbow mist. Do you think that would be all right?"
"Of course. It's a masterpiece, Grismer," said the other quietly.
Into Grismer's pale face a slow colour came and spread.
"That's worth living for," he said.
"I said that I'm glad I have lived to hear you speak that way of anything I have done," said Grismer with a smile.
"I don't understand why you should care about my opinion," returned Cleland, turning an amused and questioning gaze on the sculptor. "I'm no critic, you know."
"I know," nodded Grismer, with his odd smile. "But your approval means more than any critic has to offer me… There's an arm-chair over there, if you care to be seated."
Cleland took his glass of iced orange juice with him. Grismer set his on the floor and dropped onto the ragged couch.
"Anybody can point it up now," he said. "It ought to be cast in silver-grey bronze, not burnished – a trifle over life-size."
"You must have worked like the devil to have finished this in such a brief period."
"Oh, I work that way – when I do work… I've been anxious – worried over what you might think… I'm satisfied now."
He filled and lighted his pipe, leaned back clasping his well-made arms behind his head.
"Cleland," he said, "it's a strange sensation to feel power within one's self – be conscious of it, certain of it, and deliberately choose not to use it… And the very liberty of choice is an added power."
Cleland looked up, perplexed. Grismer smiled, and his smile seemed singularly care-free and tranquil:
"Just think," he said, "what the gods could have done if they had taken the trouble to bestir themselves! What they did do makes volumes of mythology: what they refrained from doing would continue in the telling through all eternity. What they did betrayed their power," he added, with a whimsical gesture toward his fountain; "but what they refrained from doing interests me, Cleland – fascinates me, arouses my curiosity, my respect, my awe, and my gratitude that they were godlike enough to disdain display – that they were decent enough to leave to the world material to feed its imagination."
Cleland smiled sombrely at Grismer's whimsical humour, but his features settled again into grave, care-worn lines, and his absent gaze rested on nothing. And Grismer's golden eyes studied him.
"It must be pleasant out there in the country," he said casually.
"It's cool. You must go there, Grismer. This place is unendurable. Do go up while Phil Grayson is there."
"Is there anybody else?"
"Helen – and Stephanie," he said, using her name with an effort. "The Belters were there for a week. No doubt Stephanie will ask other people during the summer."
"When do you go back?" asked Grismer quietly.
There was a short silence, then Cleland said in a voice of forced frankness:
"I was about to tell you that I'm going over to Paris for a while. You know how it is – a man grows restless – wants to run over and take a look at the place just to satisfy himself that it's still there." His strained smile remained stamped on his face after his gaze shifted from Grismer's penetrating eyes – unsmiling, golden-deep eyes that seemed to have perceived a rent in him, and were looking through the aperture into the secret places of his mind.
"When are you going, Cleland?"
"Oh, I don't know. Some time this week, if I can get accommodations."
"You go alone?"
"Why – of course!"
"I thought perhaps you might feel that Stephanie ought to see Europe."
"I hadn't – considered – "
He reddened, took a swallow of his orange juice, and, holding the glass, turned his eyes on the wax model.
"How long will you be away?" asked Grismer in his still and singularly agreeable voice.
There was another silence. Then Cleland made a painful effort at careless frankness once more:
"That reminds me, Grismer," he exclaimed. "I can't ever repay you for that fountain, but I can do my damndest with a cheque-book and a fountain pen. I should feel most uncomfortable if I went away leaving that obligation unsettled."
He drew out his cheque-book and fountain pen and smiled resolutely at Grismer, whose dark golden eyes rested on him with an intentness that he could scarcely endure.
"Would you let me give it to you, Cleland?"
"I can't, Grismer… It's splendid of you."
"I shall not need the money," said Grismer, almost absently, and for an instant his gaze grew vague and remote. Then he turned his head again, where it lay cradled on his clasped hands behind his neck: "You won't let me give it to you, I know. And there's no use telling you that I shall not need the money. You won't believe me… You won't understand how absolutely meaningless is money to me – just now. Well, then – write in what you care to offer."
"I can't do that, Grismer."
The other smiled and, still smiling, named a figure. And Cleland wrote it out, detached the cheque, started to rise, but Grismer told him to lay it on the table beside his glass of orange juice.
"It's a thing no man can pay for," said Cleland, looking at the model.
Grismer said quietly:
"The heart alone can pay for anything… A gift without it is a cheque unsigned… Cleland, I've spoken to you twice since you have returned from abroad – but you have not understood. And there is much unsaid between us. It must be said some day… There are questions you ought to ask me. I'd see any other man in hell before I'd answer. But I'll answer you!"
Cleland turned his eyes, heavy with care, on this man who was speaking.
"There are three things in the world which I have desired – to stand honourably and well in the eyes of such people as your father and you; to win your personal regard and respect; to win the love of Stephanie Quest."
In the tense silence he struck a match and relighted his pipe. It went out again and grew cold while he was speaking:
"I lost the consideration of such people as you and your father; in fact, I never gained it at all… And it was like a little death to something inside me… And as for Stephanie – " He shook his head. "No," he said, "there was no love in her to give me. There is none now. There never will be."
He laid aside his pipe, clasped his hands behind his head once more and dropped one long leg over the other.
"You won't question me. I suppose it's the pride in you, Cleland. But my pride is dead; I cut its throat… So I'll tell you what you ought to know.
"I always was in love with her, even as a boy – after that single glimpse of her there in the railroad station. It's odd how such things really happen. Your people had no social interest in mine. I shall use a more sinister term: your father held my father in contempt… So there was no chance for me to know you and Stephanie except as I was thrown with you in school."
"You can never know what a boy suffers who is fiercely proud, who is ready to devote himself soul and body to another boy, and who knows that he is considered inferior… It drives him to strange perverseness, to illogical excesses – to anything which may conceal the hurt – the raw, quivering heart of a boy… So we fought with fists. You remember. You remember, too, probably, many things I said and did to intensify your hostility and contempt – like a hurt thing biting at its own wounds – !"
"Well, you went away. Has Stephanie told you how she and I met?"
"I thought she would tell you," he said tranquilly. "And has she told you about our unwise behaviour – our informal comradeship – reckless escapades?"
Grismer raised his head and looked at him intently.
"And has she related the circumstances of our marriage?" he asked.
"I mean in part. There were many things she refused to speak of, were there not?"
He slowly unclasped his linked fingers and leaned forward on the couch, groping for his pipe. When he found it he slowly knocked the cinders from the bowl, then laid it aside once more.
"Cleland, I'll have to tell where I stood the day that my father – killed himself."
"Stephanie knew it. There had been a suit pending, threatening him… For years the fear of such a thing had preyed on his mind… I never dreamed there was any reason for him to be afraid… But there was."
He dropped his head and sat for a few moments thinking and playing with his empty pipe. Then:
"Stephanie's aunt was the Nemesis. She became obsessed with the belief that her nephew and later, Stephanie, had suffered wickedly through my father's – conversion of trust funds." He swallowed hard and passed one hand over his eyes: "My father was a defaulter… That woman's patience was infernal. She never ceased her investigations. She was implacable. And she – got him.
"She was dying when the case was ready. Nobody knew she was mortally ill… I suppose my father saw disgrace staring him in the face… He made a last effort to see her. He did see her. Stephanie was there… Then he went away… He had not been well. It was an overdose of morphine."
Grismer leaned forward, clasping his hands on his knees and fixing his eyes on space.
"The money that I inherited was considerable," he said in his soft, agreeable voice. "But after I had begun to amuse myself with it, the papers in the suit were sent to me by that dead woman's attorneys. So," he said pleasantly, "I learned for the first time that the money belonged to Stephanie's estate. And, of course, I transferred it to her attorneys at once… She never told you anything of this?"
"No," said Grismer thoughtfully, "she couldn't have told you without laying bare my father's disgrace. But that is how I suddenly found myself on my uppers," he continued lightly. "Stephanie came to me in an agony of protest. She is a splendid girl, Cleland. She rather violently refused to touch a penny of the money. You should have heard what she said to her aunt's attorneys – who now represented her. Really, Cleland, there was the devil to pay… But that was easy. I paid him. Naturally, I couldn't retain a penny… So it lies there yet, accumulating interest, payable at any time to Stephanie's order… But she'll never use it… Nor shall I, Cleland… God knows who'll get it – some charity, I hope… After I step out, I think Stephanie will give it to some charity for the use of little children who have missed their childhood – children like herself, Cleland."
After a silence he idly struck a match, watched it burn out, dropped the cinder to the floor:
"There was no question of you at that time," said Grismer, lifting his eyes to Cleland's drawn face. "And I was very desperately in love… There seemed to be hope that Stephanie might care for me… Then came that reckless escapade at Albany, where she was recognized by some old friends of your father and by schoolmates of her own…
"Cleland, I would gladly have shot myself then, had that been any solution. But there seemed to be only the one solution… She has told you, I believe?"
"Well, that was what was done… I think she cried all the way back. The Albany Post Road seemed like a road through hell to me. I knew then that Stephanie cared nothing for me in that way; that my place in her life served other purposes.
"I don't know what she thought I expected of her – what duty she believed she owed me. I know now that the very thought of wifehood was abhorrent to her… But she was game, Cleland! … What line of reasoning she followed I don't know. Whether my love for her touched her, or some generous impulse of renunciation – some childish idea of bringing to me again the inheritance which I had forced on her, I don't know.
"But she was game. She came here that night with her suitcase. She was as white as death, could scarcely speak… I never even touched her hand, Cleland… She slept there – behind that curtain on the iron bed. I sat here all night long.
"In the morning we talked it over. And with every generous plucky word she uttered I realized that it was hopeless. And do you know – God knows how – but somehow I kept thinking of you, Cleland. And it was like clairvoyance, almost, for I could not drive away the idea that she cared for you, unknowingly, and that when you came back some day she'd find it out."
He rose from the couch and began to pace the studio slowly, his hands in his pockets.
"Cleland," he said, "she meant to play the game. The bed she had made for herself she was ready to lie on… But I looked into those grey eyes of hers and I knew that it was pity that moved her, square dealing that nerved her, and that already she was suffering agonies to know what you would think of what she had done – done with a man you never liked – the son of a man whom your father held in contempt because – because he considered him – dishonest!"
He halted a pace from where Cleland was sitting:
"I told her to go back to her studio and think it over. She went out… I did not think of her coming back here… I was standing in front of that cracked mirror over there… To get a sure line on my temple… That's what shattered the glass – when she struck my arm up…
"Well, a man goes to pieces sometimes… She made me promise to wait two years – said she would try to care for me enough in that time to live with me… The child was frightened sick. The terror of my ever doing such a – a fool thing remains latent in her brain. I know it. I know it's there. I know, Cleland, that she is in love with you. And that she dare not ask me for her freedom for fear that I shall do some such silly thing."
He began to laugh, quite naturally, without any bitterness at all:
"I tried to make you understand. I told you that I would do anything for you. But you didn't comprehend… Yet, I meant it. I mean it now. She belongs to you, Cleland. I want you to take her. I wish her to understand that I give her the freedom she's entitled to. That she need not be afraid to take it – need not fear that I might make an ass of myself."
He laughed again, quite gaily:
"No, indeed, I mean to live. I tell you, Cleland, there is no excitement on earth like beating Fate at her own game. There's only one thing – "
After a pause, Cleland looked up into the man's wistful, golden eyes.
"What is it, Grismer?"
"If I could win – your friendship – "
"Good God!" whispered Cleland, rising and offering a hand that shook, " – Do you think I'm worth it, Oswald?"
Their hands met, clasped; a strange light flashed in Grismer's golden eyes.
"Do you mean it, Cleland?"
"With all my heart, old chap… I don't know what to say to you – except that you're white all through – straighter than I am, Grismer – clean to the soul of you!"
Grismer drew a long, deep breath.
"Thanks," he said. "That's about all I want of life… Tell Stephanie what you said to me – if you don't mind… I don't care what others think … if you and she think me straight."
"Oswald, I tell you you're straighter than I am – stronger. Your thoughts never wavered; you stood steady to punishment, not whimpering. I've had a curb-bit on myself, and I don't know now how long it might have taken me to get it between my teeth and smash things."
"It would have taken two to smash the Cleland traditions. It couldn't have been done – between you and Stephanie… Are you going back to Runner's Rest to-night?"
"Yes – if you say so," he replied in a low voice.
"I do say so. Call her on the telephone as soon as you leave here. Then take the first train."
"And you? Will you come?"
"Will you let us know when you can come, Oswald?"
Grismer picked up a shabby dressing gown from the back of a decrepit chair, and put it on over his undershirt and trousers.
"Sure," he said pleasantly. "I've one or two matters to keep me here. I'll fix them up to-night… And please make it very plain to Stephanie that I'm taking this affair beautifully and that the last thing I'd do would be to indulge in any foolishness to shock her… I'm really most interested in living. Tell her so. She will believe it. For I have never lied to her, Cleland."
They walked together to the area gate.
"Stephanie should see her attorneys," said Grismer. "The easiest way, I think, would be for her to leave the state and for me to go abroad. Her attorneys will advise her. But," he added carelessly, "there's time to talk over that with her. The main thing is to know that she will be free. And she will be… Good night, Cleland!" … He laughed boyishly. "I've never been as happy in my whole life!"
With the clang of the closing gate, Grismer's handsome face altered terribly, and he turned deathly white for a moment. Two policemen lounged by in the glare of the arc-light; one of them glanced down into the areaway and saw a pallid face behind the iron bars – turned sharply to look again.
"Gee," he said to his mate, "d'yeh get that guy's map?"
"Coke," said the other carelessly. "Looks like a feller I seen in Sing Sing waitin' for the priest – what's his name, now – " The voices receded. But Grismer had heard.
Perhaps his brain registered the scene sketched by the policeman – a bloodless face behind the death-cell grating – the distant steps of the procession already sounding in the corridor.
He opened the gate and went out to the sidewalk where a young girl, unskillfully painted, stood looking about her preliminary to opening the night's campaign.
"Hello," she said tentatively.
"Ah," he said pleasantly, "a goddess of the stars!"
"Got anything on?" she asked, approaching with her mirthless smile.
"Yes, a few casual garments."
She looked him over with the uncanny wisdom of her caste, and, young as she was, she divined in this man only the opportunity to waste her time.
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