The Restless Sex
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"I'm opposed to any such frivolous profession!" snapped Grismer angrily. "That's your answer. And that settles it."
"You mean that you still oppose my studying sculpture?"
"Why?" demanded the youth, rather white, but smiling.
"Because it is no business career for a Christian!" retorted his father, furious. "It is a loose, irregular, eccentric profession, beset with pitfalls and temptations. It leads to immorality and unbelief – m-m-m'yes, to hell itself! And that is why I oppose it!"
"I'm sorry you feel that way but I can't help it, of course."
"Do you mean," inquired his mother, "that you intend to disregard our solemn wishes?"
"I don't know," said the young fellow, "I really don't know, Mother. I can't seem to breathe and expand at home. You've never made things very cheerful for me."
"Oswald! You are utterly heartless!"
"I've been fed up on the governor's kind of religion, on narrow views and gloom; and that's no good for a modern boy. It's a wonder I have any heart at all, and sometimes I think it's dried up – "
"That will do!" shouted Grismer, losing all self-control. "If your home, your parents, and your Creator can not make a Christian of you, there is nothing to hope from you! … I'll hear no more from you. Go and get ready for church!"
"I sha'n't go," said the young fellow calmly.
When he went back to Cambridge at the end of the week, it was with the desire never to see his home again, and with a vague and burning intention to get even, somehow, by breaking every law of the imbecile religion on which he had been "fed up."
When Stephanie was fifteen years old, John Cleland took her to Cambridge.
The girl had been attending a celebrated New York school during the last two years. She had developed the bearing and manners which characterized the carefully trained products of that institution, but the r?gime seemed to have subdued her, and made her retiring and diffident.
She could have formed friendships there had she desired to do so; she formed none; yet any girl there would have been happy and flattered to call Stephanie Quest her friend. But Stephanie cared little for those confidential and intimate relations so popular among school girls of her age.
She made no enemies, however. An engaging reticence and reserve characterized her – the shy and wistful charm of that indeterminate age when a girl is midway in the delicate process of transformation.
If she cared nothing about girls, she lacked self-confidence with boys, though vastly preferring their society; but she got little of it except when Jim's school friends came to the house during holidays. Then she had a heavenly time just watching and listening.
So when John Cleland took her to Cambridge, she had, in the vernacular of the moment, a "wonderful" experience – everything during that period of her career being "wonderful" or "topping."
Jim, as always, was "wonderful;" and the attitude of his friends alternately delighted and awed her, so gaily devoted they instantly became to Jim's "little sister."
But what now secretly thrilled the girl was that Jim, for the first time, seemed to be proud of her, not tolerating her as an immature member of the family, but welcoming her as an equal, on an equal footing.And, with inexpressible delight, she remembered her determination, long ago, to overtake him; and realized that she was doing it very rapidly.
So she went to a football game at the stadium; she took tea in the quarters of these god-like young men; she motored about Cambridge and Boston; she saw all that a girl of fifteen ought to see, heard all that she ought to hear, and went back to New York with John Cleland in the seventh paradise of happiness fulfilled, madly enamoured of Jim and every youthful superman he had introduced to her.
Every year while Jim was at college there was a repetition of this programme, and she and John Cleland departed regularly for Cambridge amid excitement indescribable.
And when, in due time, Jim prepared to emerge from that great university, swaddled in sheepskin, and reeking with Cambridge culture, Stephanie went again to Cambridge with her adopted father – a girl, then, of seventeen, still growing, still in the wondering maze of her own adolescence, exquisitely involved in its magic, conscious already of its spell, of its witchcraft, which lore she was shyly venturing to investigate.
She had a "wonderful" week in Cambridge – more and more excited by the discovery that young men found her as agreeable as she found them, and that they sought her now on perfectly even terms of years and experience; regarded her as of them, not merely with them. And this enchanted her.
Two of her school friends, the Hildreth girls, were there with their mother, and the latter very gladly extended her wing to cover Stephanie for the dance, John Cleland not feeling very well and remaining in Boston.
And it chanced that Stephanie met there Oswald Grismer; and knew him instantly when he was presented to her. Even after all those years, the girl clearly recollected seeing him in the railroad station, and remembered the odd emotions of curiosity and disapproval she experienced when he stared at her so persistently – disapproval slightly mitigated by consciousness of the boyish flattery his manner toward her implied.
He said, in his easy, half-mischievous way:
"You don't remember me, of course, Miss Quest, but when you were a very little girl I once saw you at the Grand Central Station in New York."
Stephanie, as yet too inexperienced a diplomat to forget such things, replied frankly that she remembered him perfectly. When it was too late, she blushed at her admission.
"That's unusually nice of you," he said. "Maybe it was my bad manners that impressed you, Miss Quest. I remember that I had never seen such a pretty little girl in my life, and I'm very sure I stared at you, and that you were properly annoyed."
He was laughing easily, as he spoke, and she laughed, too, still a trifle confused.
"I did think you rather rude," she admitted. "But what a long time ago that was! Isn't it strange that I should remember it? I can even recollect that you and my brother had had a fight in school and that dad made you both shake hands there in the station, before you went aboard the train… Naturally, I didn't feel kindly toward you," she added, laughingly.
"Jim and I are now on most amiable terms," he assured her, "so please feel kindly toward me now – kindly enough to give me one unimportant dance. Will you, Miss Quest?"
Later when he presented himself to claim the dance, her reception of him was unmistakably friendly.
He had grown up into a spare, loosely coupled, yet rather graceful young fellow, with hair and eyes that matched, both of a deep amber shade.
But there was in his bearing, in his carelessly attractive manner, in his gaze, a lurking hint of irresponsibility, perhaps of mischief, which did not, however, impress her disagreeably.
On the contrary, she felt oddly at ease with him, as though she had known him for some time.
"Have you forgiven me for staring at you so many years ago?" he inquired, smilingly.
She thought that she had.
But his next words startled her a little; he said, still smiling in his careless and attractive way:
"I have a queer idea that we're beginning in the middle of everything – that we've already known each other long enough to waive preliminaries and begin our acquaintance as old friends."
He was saying almost exactly what she had not put into words. He was still looking at her intently, curiously, with the same slightly importunate, slightly deferential smile which she now vividly remembered in the boy.
"Do you, by any chance, feel the same about our encounter?" he asked.
"That we seem to have known each other for a long time?"
Stephanie had not yet learned very much in the art of self-defense. A question to her still meant either a truthful answer or a silence. She remained silent.
"Do you, Miss Quest?" he persisted.
"Yes, I do."
"As though," he insisted, "you and I are beginning in the middle of the book of friendship instead of bothering to cut the pages of the preface?" he suggested gaily.
"You know," she warned him, "that I have not yet made up my mind about you."
"Oh. Concerning what are you in doubt?"
"Concerning exactly how I ought to consider you."
"As a friend, please."
"Perhaps. Are we going to dance or talk?"
After they had been dancing for a few moments:
"So you are a crew man?"
"Who told you?"
"I've inquired about you," she admitted, glancing sideways at the tall, spare, graceful young fellow with his almost golden colouring. "I have questioned various people. They told me things."
"Did they give me a black eye?" he asked, laughingly.
"No. But somebody gave you a pair of golden ones… Like two sun-spots on a brown brook. You've a golden look; do you know it?"
"Red-headed men turn that way when they're in the sun and wind," he explained, still laughing, yet plainly fascinated by the piquant, breezy informality of this young girl. "Tell me, do you still go to school, Miss Quest?"
"How insulting! … Yes! But it was mean of you to ask."
"Good Lord! You didn't expect me to think you the mother of a family, did you?"
That mollified her.
"Where do you go to school?" he continued.
"Miss Montfort's. I finish this week."
"To college, I'm afraid."
"Don't you want to?"
"I'd rather go to a dramatic school."
"Is that your inclination, Miss Quest?"
"I'd adore it! But dad doesn't."
"I don't know. I'm quite happy, anyway. I'm having a wonderful time, whatever I'm doing."
"Then it isn't an imperious call from Heaven to leave all and elevate the drama?" he asked, with a pretense of anxiety that made her laugh.
"You are disrespectful. I'm sure I could elevate the drama if I had the chance. But I sha'n't get it. However, next to the stage I adore to paint," she explained. "There is a class. I have attended it for two years. I paint rather nicely."
"No wonder we feel so friendly," exclaimed Grismer.
"Why? Do you paint?"
"No, but I'm to be a sculptor."
"How wonderful! I'm simply mad to do something, too! Don't you love the atmosphere of Bohemia, Mr. Grismer?"
He said that he did with a mischievous smile straight into her grey eyes.
"It is my dream," she went on, slightly confused, "to have a studio – not a bit fixed up, you know, and not frilly – but with just one or two wonderful old objects of art here and there and the rest a fascinating confusion of artistic things."
"Great!" he assented. "Please ask me to tea!"
"Wouldn't it be wonderful? And of course I'd work like fury until five o'clock every day, and then just have tea ready for the brilliant and interesting people who are likely to drop in to discuss the most wonderful things! Just think of it, Mr. Grismer! Think what a heavenly privilege it must be to live such a life, surrounded by inspiration and – and atmosphere and – and such things – and listening to the conversation of celebrated people telling each other all about art and how they became famous! What a lofty, exalted life! What a magnificent incentive to self-cultivation, attainment, and creative accomplishment! And yet, how charmingly informal and free from artificiality!"
Grismer also had looked forward to a professional career in Bohemia, with a lively appreciation of its agreeable informalities. And the irresponsibility and liberty – perhaps license – of such a life had appealed to him only in a lesser degree than the desire to satisfy his artistic proclivities with a block of marble or a fistful of clay.
"Yes," he repeated, "that is undoubtedly the life, Miss Quest. And it certainly seems as though you and I were cut out for it."
Stephanie sighed, lost in iridescent dreams of higher things – vague visions of spiritual and artistic levels from which, if attained, genius might stoop to regenerate the world.
But Grismer's amber eyes were brilliant with slumbering mischief.
"What do you think of Grismer, Steve?" inquired Jim Cleland, as they drove back to Boston that night, where his father, at the hotel, awaited them both.
"I really don't exactly know, Jim. Do you like him?"
"Sometimes. He's crew, Dicky, Hasty Pudding. He's a curious chap. You've got to hand him that, anyway."
"Oh, more than that, I think. He's an artist through and through."
"Oh, yes. He's a bird on the box, too."
"On the piano, Steve. He's the real thing. He sings charmingly. He draws better than Harry Beltran. He's done things in clay and wax – really wonderful things. You saw him in theatricals."
"Did I? Which was he?"
"Why, the Duke of Brooklyn, of course. He was practically the whole show!"
"I didn't know it," she murmured. "I did not recognize him. How clever he really is!"
"You hadn't met him then," remarked Jim.
"But I had seen him, once," she answered in a low, dreamy voice.
Jim Cleland glanced around at her. Again it struck him that Stephanie was growing up very rapidly into an amazingly ornamental girl – a sister to be proud of.
"Did you have a good time, Steve?" he asked.
"Wonderful," she sighed; smiling back at him out of sleepy eyes.
The car sped on toward Boston.
Stephanie Quest was introduced to society when she was eighteen, and was not a success. She had every chance at her debut to prove popular, but she remained passive, charmingly indifferent to social success, not inclined to step upon the treadmill, unwilling to endure the exactions, formalities, sacrifices, and stupid routine which alone make social position possible. There was too much chaff for the few grains of wheat to interest her.
She wanted a career, and she wanted to waste no time about it, and she was delightfully certain that the path to it lay through some dramatic or art school to the stage or studio.
Jim laughed at her and teased her; but his father worried a great deal, and when Stephanie realized that he was worrying she became reasonable about the matter and said that the next best thing would be college.
"Dad," she said, "I adore dancing and gay dinner parties, but there is nothing else to them but mere dancing and eating. The trouble seems to be with the people – nice people, of course – but – "
"Brainless," remarked Jim, looking over his evening paper.
"No; but they all think and do the same things. They all have the same opinions, the same outlook. They all read the same books when they read at all, go to see the same plays, visit the same people. It's jolly to do it two or three times; but after a little while you realize that all these people are restless and don't know what to do with themselves; and it makes me restless – not for that reason – but because I do know what to do with myself – only you, darling – " slipping one arm around John Cleland's neck, " – don't approve."
"Yours is a restless sex, Steve," remarked Jim, still studying the evening paper. "You've all got the fidgets."
"A libel, my patronizing friend. Or rather a tribute," she added gaily, "because only a restless mind matures and accomplishes."
"Accomplishes what? Suffrage? Sex equality? You'll all perish with boredom when you get it, because there'll be nothing more to fidget about."
"He's just a bumptious boy yet, isn't he, Dad?"
Jim laughed and laid aside his paper:
"You're a sweet, pretty girl, Steve – "
"I'll slay you if you call me that!"
"Why not be what you look? Why not have a good time with all your might, marry when you wish, and become a perfectly – "
"Oh, Jim, you are annoying! Dad, is there anything more irritating than a freshly hatched college graduate? Or more maddeningly complacent? Look at your self-satisfied son! There he sits, after having spent the entire day in enjoyment of his profession, and argues that I ought to be satisfied with an idle day in which I have accomplished absolutely nothing! I'm afraid your son is a pig."
Jim laughed lazily:
"The restless sex is setting the world by the ears," he said tormentingly. "All this femininist business, this intrusion into man's affairs, this fidgety dissatisfaction with a perfectly good civilization, is spoiling you all."
"Is that the sort of thing you're putting into your wonderful novel?" she inquired.
"No, it's too unimportant – "
"Dad! Let's ignore him! Now, dear, if you feel as you do about a career for me at present, I really think I had better go to college. I do love pleasure, but somehow the sort of pleasure I'm supposed to enjoy doesn't last; and it's the people, I think, that tire one very quickly. It does make a difference in dancing, doesn't it? – not to hear an idea uttered during an entire evening – not to find anybody thinking for themselves – "
"Oh, Steve!" laughed Jim, "you're not expected to think at your age! All that society expects of you is that you chatter incessantly during dinner and the opera and do your thinking in a ballroom with your feet!"
She was laughing, but an unwonted colour brightened her cheeks as she turned on him from the padded arm of John Cleland's chair, where she had been sitting:
"If I really thought you meant that, Jim, I'd spend the remainder of my life in proving to you that I have a mind."
"Never mind him, Steve," said John Cleland. "If you wish to go to college, you shall."
"How about looking after us?" inquired Jim, alarmed.
"Dad, if my being here is going to make you more comfortable," she said, "I'll remain. Really, I am serious. Don't you want me to go?"
"Are you really so restless, Steve?"
"Mentally," she replied, with a defiant glance at Jim.
"This will be a gay place to live in if you go off for four years!" remarked that young man.
"You don't mean that you'd miss me!" she exclaimed mockingly.
"Of course I'd miss you."
"Miss the mental stimulus I give you?" – sweetly persuasive.
"Not at all. I'd miss the mental relaxation you afford my tired brain – "
"You beast! Dad, I'm going! And some day your son will find out that it's an idle mind that makes a girl restless; not a restless mind that makes her idle!"
"I was just teasing, Steve!"
"I know it." She smiled at the young fellow, but her grey eyes were brilliant. Then she turned and nestled against John Cleland: "I have made up my mind, darling, and I have decided to go to Vassar."
Home, to John Cleland and his son, had come to mean Stephanie as much as everything else under the common roof-tree.
For the background of familiar things framed her so naturally and so convincingly and seemed so obviously devised for her in this mellow old household, where everything had its particular place in an orderly ensemble, that when she actually departed for college, the routine became dislocated, jarring everything above and below stairs, and leaving two dismayed and extremely restless men.
"Steve's going off like this has put the whole house on the blink," protested Jim, intensely surprised to discover the fact.
It nearly finished Janet, whose voice, long afflicted with the cracked tremolo of age, now became almost incoherent at the very mention of Stephanie's name.
Old Lizzie, the laundress, deeply disapproving of Stephanie's departure, insisted on doing her linen and sheer fabrics, and sending a hamper once a week to Poughkeepsie. Every week, also, Amanda, the cook, dispatched cardboard boxes Vassarward, containing condiments and culinary creations which she stubbornly refused to allow Cleland Senior to censor.
"Ay t'ank a leetle yelly-cake and a leetle yar of yam it will not hurt Miss Stephanie," she explained to Cleland. And he said no more.
As for Meacham, he prowled noiselessly about his duties, little, shrunken, round-shouldered, as though no dislocation in the family circle had occurred; but every day since her departure, at Stephanie's place a fresh flower of some sort lay on the cloth to match the other blossom opposite.
In the library together, after dinner, father and son discussed the void which her absence had created.
"She'll get enough of it and come back," suggested Jim, but without conviction. "It's beastly not having her about."
"Perhaps you have a faint idea how it was for me when you were away," observed his father.
"I know. I had to go through, hadn't I?"
"Of course… But – with your mother gone – it was – lonely. Do you understand, now, why I took Steve when I had the chance?"
The young fellow nodded, looking at his father:
"Of course I understand. But I don't see why Steve had to go. She has everything here to amuse her – everything a girl could desire! Why the deuce should she get restless and go flying about after knowledge?"
"Possibly," said John Cleland, "the child has a mind."
"A feminine one. Yes, of course. I tell you, Father, it's all part and parcel of this world-wide restlessness which has set women fidgeting the whole world over. What is it they want? – because they themselves can't tell you. Do you know?"
"I think I do. They desire to exercise the liberty of choice."
"They have it now, haven't they?"
"Virtually. They're getting the rest. If Steve goes through college she will emerge to find all paths open to women. It worries me a little."
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