The Restless Sex
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"What's the matter?" she asked, glancing at his shabby dressing gown. "Up against it?"
"What I'm up against," he said, absently, "will look good to you, too, some day."
"Death, my dear."
"Quit kiddin'!" she retorted, with an uneasy laugh. "You got your looks yet." She stepped nearer, looking at him curiously. "Nothing like that," she said. "You're a looker. Buck up, old scout!"
She was leaning against the railing where he stood resting his back. Presently he turned, leisurely, and surveyed her.
"You are young," he said. "You'll be a tired girl before you're up against what I am."
"What have you done?" she enquired curiously.
"Sure. That's why we all go up the river."
"I'm going across the river," he remarked, smiling.
"The Styx. You never heard of it, I suppose."
"One of them dirty rivers in Jersey?"
He nodded gravely.
"What's out there?" she enquired.
"I don't know, my dear."
"Then what's the idea?"
She waited for an answer, but his golden eyes were dreamily remote.
The girl lingered. Once or twice professional sense suggested departure, but when her tired eyes of a child rested on him something held her inert.
When she again interrupted his revery he looked around at her as though he had never before seen her, and she repeated what she had said.
"What?" he asked sharply.
"I got a fiver that ain't workin'," she said again. "You can use it in your business if it's any good."
"My dear child," he said pleasantly, "you're very kind, but that's not what the matter is." He turned, dropped his arm on the railing, facing her: "What's your name?"
"Come on," he said, good-humouredly, "what's your other name?"
"Will you wait a minute?"
She nodded uncertainly.
He went back through the area, entered his studio and dressed in his shabby street clothes.
The cheque was still lying on a small table where Cleland had placed it at his request. And now he picked it up, dipped a rusty pen into an ink-bottle, and indorsed the cheque, making it payable to Anne O'Hara. Then he took his straw hat and went out.
The girl was waiting.
"Anne," he said, "I want you to read what's written on this pretty perforated piece of paper." He held it so that the electric light fell on it.
"Is it good?" she asked in an awed voice.
"Perfectly." He turned the cheque over and showed her the indorsement.
She found her voice presently:
"What are you putting over on me?"
"I'd give this cheque to you now, but it wouldn't be any good when the banks open to-morrow."
She stared her question, and he laughed:
"It's a law concerning cheques. Never mind. But there's a way to beat it. I had a lot of money once.They'll take my paper at Square Jack Hennesey's. Shall we stroll up that way?"
She did not understand. It was quite evident that she had no faith in the scrap of paper either. But it was still more evident that she was willing to remain with him, even at the loss of professional opportunities – even though she was facing the obloquy of being "kidded."
"Come into my studio first," he said.
She went without protest. In the brightly lighted basement he turned and scrutinized her coolly from head to foot.
"How old?" he asked bluntly.
"How long are you on the job?"
"Whose are you?"
"I'm for myself – "
"Come on! Don't lie!"
She straightened her thin finger in defiance:
"What are you? A bull?"
"You know I'm not. Who are you working for? Wait! Never mind! You're working for somebody, aren't you?"
"Do your folks know it?"
"What was it – cloaks, feathers, department store?"
"You can go back?"
She remained silent, and he repeated the question. Then the girl turned white under her paint.
"Damn you!" she said, "what are you trying to do to me?"
"Send you home, Anne, with a couple of thousand real money. Will you go?"
"Show it to me!" she said, but her voice had become childish and tremulous and her painted mouth was quivering.
"I'm going to show it to you," he said pleasantly. "I'll get it at Square Jack's for you. If I do will you fly the coop? I mean now, to-night! Will you?"
"Dear child, I've got to cross that dirty Jersey river. I told you. You live up state, don't you?"
"All right. Will you go now, just as you are? You'd stand a fat chance if you went back and tried to pack up. That thing would batter you to a pulp, wouldn't he?"
"All right," he said. "Take off your hat and wash your face, Anne. They'd be on to you at home. I've got to pack a few things for my journey and write a couple of letters. Get all the paint off while I'm busy. There's soap, towels, and a basin behind that screen."
She came slowly to him and stood looking at him out of her disenchanted young eyes.
"Is this on the square?" she asked.
"Won't you take a chance that it is?" he asked, taking her slim hands and looking her in the eyes.
"Yes… I'll take a chance with you – if you ask me to."
"I do." He patted her hands and smiled, then released them. "Hustle!" he said. "I'll be ready very soon."
He wrote first to Cleland:
"I'll get a special for this letter on our way uptown," he said, voicing his thoughts aloud to the girl who was scrubbing her painted lips and cheeks behind the screen.
When she emerged, pinning on her hat, he had packed a suitcase and was ready.
They found a taxi in Washington Square.
On the way uptown he mailed his letter to Stephanie; sent a district messenger with his letter to Cleland's studio; sent a night letter to Runner's Rest saying that he would take accommodations on a train which would be due at Runner's Rest station at eight next morning; stopped at the darkened and barred house of Square Jack Hennesey, and was admitted after being scrutinized through a sliding grill.
When he came out half an hour later he told the driver to go to the Grand Central Station, and got into the cab…
"Anne," he said gaily, "here's the two thousand. Count it."
The sheafs of new bills pinned to their paper bands lay in her lap for a long time before she touched them. Even then she merely lifted one packet and let it drop without even looking at it. So Grismer folded the bills and put them into her reticule. Then he took her slim left hand in both of his and held it while they rode on in silence through the electric glare of the metropolis.
At the station he dismissed the taxicab, bought a ticket and sleeping-car accommodations to Hudson – managed to get a state-room for her all to herself.
"You won't sleep much," he remarked, smiling, "so we'll have to provide you with amusement, Anne."
Carrying his suitcase, the girl walking beside him, he walked across the great rotunda to the newsstand. There, and at the confectionery counter opposite, he purchased food for mind and body – light food suitable for a young and badly bruised mind, and for a soul in embryo, still in the making.
Then he went over to another window and bought a ticket for himself to Pittsfield, and sleeping accommodations.
"We travel by different lines, Anne," he said, opening his portfolio and placing his own tickets in it, where several letters lay addressed to him at his basement studio. Then he replaced the portfolio in his breast pocket.
"I'll go with you to your train," he said, declining with a shake of his head the offices of a red-capped porter. "Your train leaves at 12.10 and we have only a few minutes."
They walked together through the gates, the officials permitting him to accompany her.
The train stood on the right – a very long train, and they had a long distance to walk along the concrete platform before they found her car.
A porter showed them to her stateroom. Grismer tipped him generously:
"Be very attentive to this young lady," he said, "and see that she has every service required, and that she is notified in plenty of time to get off at Hudson. Now you may leave us until we ring."
He turned from the corridor and entered the stateroom, closing the door behind him. The girl sat on the sofa, very pale, with a dazed expression in her eyes.
He seated himself beside her and drew her hands into his own.
"Let me tell you something," he said cheerfully. "Everybody makes mistakes. You've made some; so have I; so has everybody I ever heard of.
"Everybody gets in wrong at one time or another. The idea is to get out again and make a fresh start… Will you try?"
She nodded, so close to tears that she could not speak.
"Promise me you'll make a hard fight to travel straight?"
"It won't be easy. But try to win out, Anne. Back there – in those streets and alleys – there's nothing to hope for except death. You'll find it if you ever go back – in some hospital, in some saloon-brawl, in some rooming-house – it will surely, surely find you by bullet, by knife, by disease – sooner or later it will find you unless you start to search for it yourself."
He patted her hand, patted her pale cheek:
"It's a losing game, Anne. There's nothing in it. I guess you know that already. So go back to your people and tell them the last lies you ever tell. And stick. Stay put, little girl. You really are all right, you know, but you got in wrong. Now, you're out!"
He laughed and stood up. She lifted her head. All her colour had fled.
"Don't forget me," she whispered.
"Not as long as I live, Anne."
"May I – I write to you?"
He thought a minute, then with a smile:
"Why not?" He found a card and pencil, wrote his name and address, and laid it on the sofa. "If it would do any good to think of me when you're likely to get in wrong," he said, "then try to remember that I was square with you. And be so to me. Will you?"
"I – will."
That was all. She was crying and her eyes were too blind with tears to see the expression of his face as he kissed her.
He went away lightly, swinging his suitcase, and stood on the very end of the cement platform looking out across a wilderness of tracks branching out into darkness, set with red, green, and blue lamps.
He waited, lighting a cigarette. On his left a heavy electric engine rolled into the station, drawing a Western express train. The lighted windows of the cars threw a running yellow illumination over his motionless figure for a few moments, then the train passed into the depths of the station.
And now her train began to move very slowly out through the wilderness of yard tracks. Car after car passed him, gaining momentum all the while.
When the last car sped by and the tail-lights dwindled into perspective, Grismer had finished his cigarette.
Behind him lay the dusky, lamp-lit tunnel of the station. Before him, through ruddy darkness, countless jewelled lamps twinkled, countless receding rails glimmered, leading away into the night.
It was in him to travel that way – the way of the glimmering, jewelled lamps, the road of the shining rails.
But first he shoved his suitcase, with his foot, over the platform's edge, as though it had fallen there by accident… And, as though he had followed to recover it, he climbed down among the tracks.
There was a third rail running parallel to the twin rails. It was roofed with wood. Lying flat, there in the shimmering dusk, he could look up under the wooden guard rail and see it.
Then, resting both legs across the steel car-tracks, he reached out and took the guarded third rail in both hands.
The train that Cleland took, after calling Runner's Rest on the telephone, landed him at the home station at an impossible hour. Stars filled the heavens with a magnificent lustre; the July darkness was superb and still untouched by the coming dawn.
As he stepped from the car the tumbling roar of the river filled his ears – that and the high pines' sighing under the stars, and the sweet-scented night wind in his face greeted and met him as he set foot on the platform at Runner's Rest station and looked around for the conveyance that he had asked Stephanie to send.
There was nobody in sight except the baggage agent. He walked toward the rear of the station, turned the corner, and saw Stephanie standing there bareheaded in the starlight, wrapped in a red cloak, her hair in two heavy braids.
"Steve!" he exclaimed. "Why on earth did you come – you darling!"
"Did you imagine I wouldn't?" she asked unsteadily.
"I told you over the wire to send Williams with a buckboard."
"Everybody was in bed when the telephone rang. So I concluded to sit up for you, and when the time came I went out to the stable, harnessed up, and drove over here."
Her hand was trembling in his while she spoke, but her voice was under control.
They turned together and went over to the buckboard. She stepped in; he strapped his suitcase on behind, then followed her and took the reins from her gloved hands.
They were very quiet, but he could feel her tremble a little at times, when their shoulders were in contact. The tension betrayed itself in his voice at moments, too.
"I have a night letter from Oswald," she said. "They telephoned it up from the station. He is coming to-morrow morning."
"That's fine. He's a splendid fellow, Steve."
"I have always known it."
"I know you have. I'm terribly sorry that I did not know him better."
The buckboard turned from the station road into a fragrant wood-road. In the scented dusk little night-moths with glistening wings drifted through the rays of the wagon-lamp like snowflakes. A bird, aroused from slumber in the thicket, sang a few sweet, sleepy notes.
"Tell me," said Stephanie, in a low, tremulous voice.
"It was entirely Oswald's doing. I never dreamed of mentioning it to him. I was absolutely square to him and to you, Steve. I went there with no idea that he knew I was in love with you – or that you cared for me… He met me with simple cordiality. We looked at his beautiful model for the fountain. I don't think I betrayed in voice or look or manner that anything was wrong with me… Then, with a very winning simplicity, he spoke of you, of himself… There seemed to be nothing for me to say; he knew that I was in love with you, and that you had come to care for me… And I heard a man speak to another man as only a gentleman could speak – a real man, rare and thoroughbred… It cost him something to say to me what he said. His nerve was heart-breaking to me when he found the courage to tell me what his father had done.
"He told me with a smile that his pride was dead – that he had cut its throat. But it was still alive, Steve – a living, quivering thing. And I saw him slay it before my eyes – kill it there between his, with his steady, pleasant smile… Well, he meant me to understand him and what he had done… And I understand… And I understand your loyalty, now. And the dreadful fear which kept you silent… But there is no need to be afraid any more."
"Did he say so?"
"Yes. He told me to tell you. He said you'd believe him because he had never lied to you."
"I do believe him," she said. "I have never known him to lie to anybody."
The light over the porch at Runner's Rest glimmered through the trees. In a few moments they were at the door.
"I'll stable the horse," he said briefly.
She was in the library when he returned from the barn.
"The dawn is just breaking," she said. "It is wonderful out of doors. Do you hear the birds?"
"Do you want to go to bed, Steve?"
"No. Do you?"
"Wait for me, then."
She waited while he went to his room. The windows were open and the fresh, clean air of dawn carried the perfume of wet roses into the house.
The wooded eastern hills were very dark against the dawn; silvery mist marked the river's rushing course; thickets rang with bird songs.
She walked to the porch. Under its silver-sheeted dew the lawn looked like a lake.
Very far away across the valley a train was rushing northward. She could hear the faint vibration, the distant whistle. Then, from close by, the clear, sweet call of a meadow-lark mocked the unseen locomotive's warning in exquisite parody.
Cleland came down presently, freshened, dressed in flannels.
"Steve," he said, "you've only a nightgown on under that cloak!"
"It's all right. I'm going to get soaked anyway, if we walk on the lawn."
She laughed, drew off her slippers, flung them into the room behind her, then, with her lovely little naked feet she stepped ankle deep into the drenched grass, turned, tossed one corner of her red cloak over her shoulder, and looked back at him.
Over the soaking lawn they wandered, his arm encircling her slender body, her hand covering his, holding it closer at her waist.
The sky over the eastern hills was tinted with palest saffron now; birds sang everywhere. Down by the river cat-birds alternately mewed like sick kittens or warbled like thrushes; rose grosbeaks filled the dawn with heavenly arias, golden orioles fluted from every elm, song-sparrows twittered and piped their cheery amateur efforts, and there came the creak and chirr of purple grackles from the balsams and an incessant, never-ending rush of jolly melody from the robins.
Over the tumbling river, through the hanging curtains of mist, a great blue heron, looming enormously in the vague light, flapped by in stately flight and alighted upon a bar of golden sand.
More swiftly now came the transfiguration of the world, shell-pink and gold stained the sky; then a blaze of dazzling light cut the wooded crests opposite as the thin knife-rim of the sun glittered above the trees.
All the world rang out with song now; the river mists lifted and curled and floated upward in silvery shreds disclosing golden shoals and pebbled rapids all criss-crossed with the rosy lattice of the sun.
The girl at his side leaned her cheek against his shoulder.
"What would all this have meant without you?" she sighed. "The world turned very dark for me yesterday. And it was the blackest night I ever knew."
"And for me," he said; " – I had no further interest in living."
"Nor I… I wanted to die last night… I prayed I might… I nearly did die – with happiness – when I heard your voice over the wire. That was all that mattered in the world – your voice calling me – out of the depths – dearest – dearest – "
With her waist closely enlaced, he turned and looked deep into her grey eyes – clear, sweet eyes tinged with the lilac-grey of iris bloom.
"The world is just beginning for us," he said. "This is the dawn of our first morning on earth."
The slender girl in his arms lifted her face toward his. Both her hands crept up around his neck. The air around them rang with the storm of bird music bursting from every thicket, confusing, almost stunning their ears with its heavenly tumult.
But within the house there was another clamour which they did not hear – the reiterated ringing of the telephone. They did not hear it, standing there in the golden glory of the sunrise, with the young world awaking all around them and the birds' ecstacy overwhelming every sound save the reckless laughter of the river.
But, in the dim house, Helen awoke in her bed, listening. And after she had listened a while she sprang up, slipped out into the dark hall, and unhooked the receiver from the hinge.
And after she had heard what the distant voice had to say she wrote it down on the pad of paper hanging by the receiver – wrote it, shivering there in the darkened hall:
When she had written it down, she went to Stephanie's room and found it empty.
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