The Restless Sex
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"Well, a vixen. They say so. All the same, she's doing a lot of real good with her money."
"How do you mean?"
"She's established a sort of home for the offspring of vicious and degenerate parents. It's really quite a wonderful combination of clinic and training school where suspected or plainly defective children are brought to be taught and to remain under observation – really a finely conceived charity, I understand. Why not call on her?"
"Very well," said Cleland, reluctantly, not caring very much about encountering "vixens" and "birds" of the female persuasion.
Except for this paternal aunt and the Grismers, there turned out to be no living human being related to the child Stephanie.
Once assured of this, John Cleland undertook the journey to Bayport, running down in his car one morning, and determined that a combination of mild dignity and gallant urbanity should conquer any untoward symptoms which this "bird" might develop.
When he arrived at the entrance to the place, a nurse on duty gave him proper directions how to find Miss Quest, who was out about the grounds somewhere.
He found her at last, in nurse's garb, marching up and down the gravel paths of the "Common Sense Home for Defectives," as the institution was called.
She was pruning privet hedges. She had a grim face, a belligerent eye, and she stood clicking her pruning shears aggressively as he approached, hat in hand.
"Miss Quest, I presume?" he inquired.
"I'm called Sister Rose," she answered shortly.
"By any other name – " began Cleland, gallantly, but checked himself, silenced by the hostility in her snapping black eyes.
"What do you wish?" she demanded impatiently.
Cleland, very red, swallowed his irritation:
"I came here in regard to your niece – "
"Niece? I haven't any!"
"I beg your pardon; I mean your great-niece – "
"What do you mean? I haven't any that I know of."
"Her name is Stephanie Quest."
"Harry Quest's child? Has he really got a baby? I thought he was lying! He's such a liar – how was I to know that he has a baby?"
"You didn't know it, then?"
"No. He wrote about a child. Of course, I supposed he was lying. That was before I went abroad."
"You've been abroad?"
"How long since you've heard from Harry Quest?"
"Several years – a dozen, maybe. I suppose he's living on what I settled on him. If he needed money I'd hear from him soon enough."
"He doesn't need money, now. He doesn't need anything more from anybody. But his little daughter does."
"Is Harry dead?" she asked sharply.
"And – that hussy he married – "
"Equally defunct. I believe it was suicide."
"How very nasty!"
"Or," continued Cleland, "it may have been suicide and murder."
"Nastier still!" She turned sharply aside and stood clicking her shears furiously.After a silence: "I'll take the baby," she said in an altered voice.
"She's eleven years old."
"I forgot. I'll take her anyway. She's probably a defective – "
"She is not!" retorted Cleland so sharply that Sister Rose turned on him in astonishment.
"Madame," he said, "I want a little child to bring up. I have chosen this one. I possess a comfortable fortune. I offer to bring her up with every advantage, educate her, consider her as my own child, and settle upon her for life a sum adequate for her maintenance. I have the leisure, the inclination, the means to do these things. But you, Madame, are too busy to give this child the intimate personal attention that all children require – "
"How do you know I am?"
"Because your time is already dedicated, in a larger sense, to those unhappy children who need you more than she does.
"Because your life is already consecrated to this noble charity of which you are founder and director. A world of unfortunates is dependent on you. If, therefore, I offer to lighten your burden by relieving you of one responsibility, you could not logically decline or disregard my appeal to your reason – " His voice altered and became lower: "And, Madame, I already love the child, as though she were my own."
After a long silence Sister Rose said:
"It isn't anything you've advanced that influences me. It's my – failure – with Harry. Do you think it hasn't cut me to the – the soul?" she demanded fiercely, flinging the handful of clipped twigs onto the gravel. "Do you think I am heartless because I said his end was a nasty one! It was! Let God judge me. I did my best."
Cleland remained silent.
"As a matter of fact, I don't care what you think," she added. "What concerns me is that, possibly – probably, this child would be better off with you… You're the John Cleland, I presume."
He seemed embarrassed.
"You collect prints and things?"
"Then you are the John Cleland. Why not say so?"
"Very well, then! What you've said has in it a certain amount of common sense. I have, in a way, dedicated my life to all unfortunate children; I might not be able to do justice to Harry's child – give her the intimate personal care necessary – without impairing this work which I have undertaken, and to which I am devoting my fortune."
There was another silence, during which Sister Rose snapped her shears viciously and incessantly. Finally, she looked up at Cleland:
"Does the child care for you?"
"I – think so."
"Very well. But I sha'n't permit you to adopt her."
"I may want her myself when I'm too old and worn out to work here. I wish her to keep her name."
"Madame – "
"I insist. What did you say her name is? Stephanie? Then her name is to remain Stephanie Quest."
"If you insist – "
"I do! And that's flat! And you need not settle an income on her – "
"I shall do so," he interrupted firmly. "I have ample means to provide for the future of anybody dependent on me, Madame."
"Do you presume to dictate to me what I shall do concerning my own will?" she demanded; and her belligerent eyes fairly snapped at him.
"Do what you like, Madame, but it isn't necessary to – "
"Don't instruct me, Mr. Cleland!"
"Very well, Madame – "
"I shall do as I always have done, and that is exactly as I please," she said, glancing at him. "And if I choose to provide for the child in my will, I shall do so without requesting your opinion. Pray understand me, Mr. Cleland. If I let you have her it is only because I am self-distrustful. I failed with Harry Quest. I have not sufficient confidence in myself to risk failure with his daughter.
"Let the matter stand this way until I can consult my attorney and investigate the entire affair. Take her into your home. But remember that she is to bear her own name; that the legal guardianship shall be shared by you and me; that I am to see her when I choose, take her when I choose… Probably I shall not choose to do so. All the same, I retain my liberty of action."
Cleland said in a low voice:
"It would be – heartless – if – "
"I'm not heartless," she rejoined tartly. "Therefore, you need not worry, Mr. Cleland. If you love her and she loves you – I tell you you need not worry. All I desire is to retain my liberty of action. And I intend to do it. And that settles it!"
Cleland Senior went home in his automobile.
In a few days the last legal objection was removed. There were no other relatives, no further impediments; merely passionate tears from the child at parting with Schmidt; copious, fat tears from the carpenter's wife; no emotion from the children; none from the canary bird.
In February the child departed from the Schmidts' in charge of an elderly, indigent gentlewoman, recommended to Mr. Cleland at an exorbitant salary. Mrs. Westlake was her name; she inhabited, with a mild and useless husband, the ancient family mansion in Pelham. And here the preliminary grooming of Stephanie Quest began amid a riot of plain living, lofty thinking, excision of double negatives acquired at hazard, and a hospital r?gime of physical scrubbing.
During February and March the pitiless process continued, punctuated by blessed daily visits from Cleland Senior, laden with offerings, edible and otherwise. And before April, he had won the heart of Stephanie Quest.
The first night that she slept under Cleland's roof, he was so excited that he sat up in the library all night, listening for fear she should awake, become frightened, and cry out.
She slept perfectly. Old Janet had volunteered as nurse and wardrobe mistress, and a new parlour-maid took her place. Janet, aged sixty, had been his dead wife's childhood nurse, his son's nurse in babyhood: then she had been permitted to do in the household whatever she chose; and she chose to dust the drawing-room, potter about the house, and offer herself tea between times.
Janet, entering the library at six in the morning, found Mr. Cleland about ready to retire to bed after an all-night vigil.
"What do you think of what I've done – bringing this child here?" he demanded bluntly, having lacked the courage to ask Janet's opinion before.
Janet could neither read nor write. Her thoughts were slow in crystallizing. For a few moments master and ancient servant stood confronted there in the dusk of early morning.
"Maybe it was God's will, sor," she said at last, in her voice which age had made a little rickety.
"You don't approve?"
"Ah, then Mr. Cleland, sor, was there annything you was wishful for but the dear Missis approved?"
That answer took him entirely by surprise. He had never even thought of looking at the matter from such an angle.
And after Janet went away into the dim depths of the house, he remained standing there, pondering the old Irishwoman's answer.
Suddenly his heart grew full and the tears were salt in his throat – hot and wet in his closed eyes.
"Not that memory and love are lessened, dear," he explained with tremulous, voiceless lips, " – but you have been away so long, and here on earth time moves slowly without you – dearest – dearest – "
"Th' divil's in that young wan," panted Janet outside his chamber door. "She won't be dressed! She's turning summersalts on her bed, God help her!"
"Did you bathe her?" demanded Cleland, hurriedly buttoning his collar and taking one of the scarfs offered by old Meacham.
"I did, sor – and it was like scrubbing an eel. Not that she was naughty, sor – the darlint! – only playful-like and contrayry – all over th' tub, under wather and atop, and pretindin' the soap and brush was fishes and she another chasin' them – "
"Has she had her breakfast?"
"Cereal and cream, omelet and toast, three oranges and a pear, and a pint of milk – "
"Good heavens! Do you want to kill the child?"
"Arrah, sorr, she'll never be kilt with feedin'! It's natural to the young, sorr – and she leppin' and skippin' and turnin' over and over like a young kid! – and how I'm to dress her in her clothes God only knows – "
"Janet! Stop your incessant chatter! Go upstairs and tell Miss Stephanie that I want her to dress immediately."
"I will, sorr."
Cleland looked at Meacham and the little faded old man looked back out of wise, tragic eyes which had seen hell – would see it again more than once before he finished with the world.
"What do you think of my little ward, Meacham?"
"It is better not to think, sir; it is better to just believe."
"What do you mean?"
"Just that, sir. If we really think we can't believe. It's pleasanter to hope. The young lady is very pretty, sir."
Cleland Senior always wore a fresh white waistcoat, winter and summer, and a white carnation in his button-hole. He put on and buttoned the one while Meacham adjusted the other.
They had been together many years, these two men. Every two or three months Meacham locked himself in his room and drank himself stupid. Sometimes he remained invisible for a week, sometimes for two weeks. Years ago Cleland had given up hope of helping him. Once, assisted by hirelings, he had taken Meacham by a combination of strategy and force to a famous institute where the periodical dipsomaniac is cured if he chooses to be.
And Meacham emerged, cured to that extent; and immediately proceeded to lock himself in his room and lie there drunk for eighteen days.
Always when he emerged, ashy grey, blinking, neat, and his little, burnt-out eyes tragic with the hell they had looked upon, John Cleland spoke to him as though nothing had happened to interrupt the routine of service. The threads were picked up and knotted where they had been broken; life continued in its accustomed order under the Cleland roof. The master would not abandon the man; the man continued to fight a losing fight until beaten, then locked himself away until the enemy gave his broken body and broken mind a few weeks' respite. Otherwise, the master's faith and trust in this old-time servant was infinite.
"I think – Mrs. Cleland – would have approved. Janet thinks so."
"You think so, too?"
"Certainly, sir. Whatever you wished was madame's wish also."
"Master James is so much away these days… I suppose I am getting old, and – "
He suffered Meacham to invest him with his coat, lifted the lapel and sniffed at the blossom there, squared his broad shoulders, twisted his white moustache.
There was no more attractive figure on Fifth Avenue than Cleland Senior with the bright colour in his cheeks, his vigorous stride and his attire, so suitable to his fresh skin, sturdy years and bearing.
Meacham's eyes were lifted to his master, now. They were of the same age.
"Will you wear a black overcoat or a grey, sir?"
"I don't care. I'm going up to the nursery first. The nursery," he repeated, with a secret thrill at the word, which made him tingle all over in sheerest happiness.
"The car, sir?"
"First," said Cleland, "I must find out what Miss Stephanie wishes – or rather, I must decide what I wish her to do. Telephone the garage, anyway."
There was a silence; Cleland had walked a step or two toward the door. Now, he came back.
"Meacham, I hope I have done what was best. On her father's side there was good blood; on her mother's, physical health… I know what the risk is. But character is born in the cradle and lowered into the grave. The world merely develops, modifies, or cripples it. But it is the same character… I've taken the chance – the tremendous responsibility… It isn't a sudden fancy – an idle caprice; – it isn't for the amusement of making a fine lady out of a Cinderella. I want – a – baby, Meacham. I've been in love with an imaginary child for a long, long time. Now, she's become real. That's all."
"I understand, sir."
"Yes, you do understand. So I ask you to tell me; have I been fair to Mr. James?"
"I think so, sir."
"Will he think so? I have not told him of this affair."
"Yes, sir. He will think what madame would have thought of anything that you do." He added under his breath: "As we all think, sir."
There was a pause, broken abruptly by the sudden quavering appeal of Janet at the door once more:
"Mr. Cleland! Th' young lady is all over the house, sor! In her pajaymis and naked feet, running wild-like and ondacent – "
Cleland stepped to the door:
"Where's that child?"
"In the butler's pantry, sor – "
"I'm up here!" came a clear voice from the landing above. Cleland, Janet and Meacham raised their heads.
The child, in her pyjamas, elbows on the landing rail, smiled down upon them through her thick shock of burnished hair. Her lips were applied to an orifice in an orange; her slim fingers slowly squeezed the fruit; her eyes were intently fixed on the three people below.
When Cleland arrived at the third floor landing, he found Stephanie Quest in the nursery, cross-legged on her bed. As he entered, she wriggled off, and, in rose-leaf pyjamas and bare feet, dropped him the curtsey which she had been taught by Mrs. Westlake.
But long since she had taken Cleland's real measure; in her lovely grey eyes a thousand tiny devils danced. He held out his arms and she flung herself into them.
When he seated himself in a big chintz arm-chair, she curled up on his knees, one arm around his neck, the other still clutching her orange.
"Steve, isn't it rather nice to wake up in bed in your own room under your own roof? Or, of course if you prefer Mrs. Westlake's – "
"I don't. I don't – " She kissed him impulsively on his freshly-shaven cheek, tightened her arm around his neck.
"You know I love you," she remarked, applying her lips to the orange and squeezing it vigorously.
"I don't believe you really care much about me, Steve."
Her grey eyes regarded him sideways while she sucked the orange; contented laughter interrupted the process; then, suddenly both arms were around his neck, and her bewitching eyes looked into his, deep, very deeply.
"You know I love you, Dad."
"No, I don't."
"Don't you really know it?"
"Do you, really, Steve?"
There was a passionate second of assurance, a slight sigh; the little head warm on his shoulder, vague-eyed, serious, gazing out at the early April sunshine.
"Tell me about your little boy, Dad," she murmured presently.
"You know he isn't very little, Steve. He's fourteen, nearly fifteen."
"I forgot. Goodness!" she said softly and respectfully.
"He seems little to me," continued Cleland, "but he wouldn't like to be thought so. Little girls don't mind being considered youthful, do they?"
"Yes, they do! You are teasing me, Dad."
"Am I to understand that I have a ready-made, grown-up family, and no little child to comfort me?"
With a charming little sound in her throat like a young bird, she snuggled closer, pressing her cheek against his.
"Tell me," she murmured.
"About what, darling?"
"About your lit – about your boy."
She never tired hearing about this wonderful son, and Cleland never tired of telling about Jim, so they were always in accord on that subject.
Often Cleland tried to read in the gravely youthful eyes uplifted to his the dreamy emotions which his narrative evoked – curiosity, awe, shy delight, frank hunger for a playmate, doubt that this wonder-boy would condescend to notice her, wistfulness, loneliness – the delicate tragedy of solitary souls.
Always her gaze troubled him a little, because he had not yet told his son of what he had done – had not written to him concerning the advent of this little stranger. He had thought that the best and easiest way was to tell Jim when he met him at the railroad station, and, without giving the boy time to think, brood perhaps, perhaps worry, let him see little Stephanie face to face.
It seemed the best way to John Cleland. But, at moments, lying alone, sleepless in the night, he became horribly afraid.
It was about that time that he received a letter from Miss Rosalinda Quest:
This brusque reminder that Stephanie was not entirely his upset Cleland. But there was nothing to do about it except to write the lady a civil invitation to call.
Which she did one morning a week later. She wore battle-grey tweeds and toque, and a Krupp steel equipment of reticule and umbrella; and she looked the fighter from top to toe.
When Cleland came down to the drawing-room with Stephanie. Miss Quest greeted him with perfunctory civility and looked upon Stephanie with unfeigned amazement.
"Is that my niece?" she demanded. And Stephanie, who had been warned of the lady and of the relationship, dropped her curtsey and offered her slender hand with the shy but affable smile instinctive in all children.
But the grey, friendly eyes and the smile did instantly a business for the child which she never could have foreseen; for Miss Quest lost her colour and stood quite dumb and rigid, with the little girl's hand grasped tightly in her grey-gloved fingers.
Finally she found her voice – not the incisive, combative, precise voice which Cleland knew – but a feminine and uncertain parody on it:
"Do you know who I am, Stephanie?"
"Yes, ma'am. You are my Aunt Rosalinda."
Miss Quest took the seat which Cleland offered and sat down, drawing the child to her knee. She looked at her for a long while without speaking.
Later, when Stephanie had been given her cong?, in view of lessons awaiting her in the nursery, Miss Quest said to Cleland, as she was going:
"I'm not blind. I can see what you are doing for her – what you have done. The child adores you."
"I love her exactly as though she were my own," he said, flushing.
"That's plain enough, too… Well, I shall be just. She is yours. I don't suppose there ever will be a corner in her heart for me… I could love her, too, if I had the time."
"Is not what you renounce in her only another sacrifice to the noble work in which you are engaged?"
"Rubbish! I like my work. But it does do a lot of good. And it's quite true that I can not do it and give my life to Stephanie Quest. And so – " she shrugged her trim shoulders – "I can scarcely expect the child to care a straw for me, even if I come to see her now and then."
Cleland said nothing. Miss Quest marched to the door, held open by Meacham, turned to Cleland:
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