The Restless Sex
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"What is it she calls it – I mean her attitude about choosing a career?"
"She refers to it, I believe, as 'the necessity for self-expression.'"
"Fiddle! The trouble with Steve is that she's afflicted with extreme youth."
"I don't know, Jim. She has a mind."
"It's a purely imitative one. People she has read about draw, write, compose music. Steve is sensitive to impression, high strung, with a very receptive mind; and the idea attracts her. And what happens? She sees me, for example, scribbling away every day; she knows I'm writing a novel; it makes an impression on her and she takes to scribbling, too.
"Oswald Grismer drops in and talks studio and atmosphere and Rodin and Manship. That stirs her up. What occurs within twenty-four hours? Steve orders a box of colours and a modelling table; and she smears her pretty boudoir furniture with oil paint and plasticine. And that's all it amounts to, Father, just the caprice of a very young girl who thinks creative art a romantic cinch, and takes a shy at it."
His father, not smiling, said:
"Possibly. But the mere fact that she does take a shy at these things – spends her leisure in trying to paint, model, and write, when other girls of her age don't, worries me a little. I do not want her to become interested in any profession of an irregular nature. I want Steve to keep away from the unconventional. I'm afraid of it for her."
"Because all intelligence is restless – and Steve is very intelligent. All creative minds desire to find some medium for self-expression. And I'm wondering whether Steve's mind is creative or merely imitative; whether she is actually but blindly searching for an outlet for self-expression, or whether it's merely the healthy mental energy of a healthy body requiring its share of exercise, too."
"It's in the air, Father, this mania for 'doing things.' It's the ridiculous renaissance of the commonplace, long submerged. Every college youth, every school girl writes a novel; every janitor, every office boy a scenario. The stage to-day teems with sales-ladies and floor-walkers; the pants-presser and the manufacturer of ladies' cloaks direct the newest art of the moving pictures. Printers' devils and ex-draymen fill the papers with their draughtsmanship; head-waiters write the scores for musical productions. Art is in the air. So why shouldn't Steve believe herself capable of creating a few things? She'll get over it."
"I hope she will."
"She will. Steve is a reasonable child."
"Steve is a sweet, intelligent and reasonable girl… Very impressionable… And sensitive… I hope," he added irrelevantly, "that I shall live a few years more."
"You hadn't contemplated anything to the contrary, had you?" inquired Jim.
They both smiled. Then Cleland Senior said in his pleasant, even way:
"One can never tell… And in case you and Steve have to plod along without me some day, before either of you are really wise enough to dispense with my invaluable advice, try to understand her, Jim.Try always; try patiently… Because I made myself responsible… And, for all her honesty and sweetness and her obedience, Jim, there is – perhaps – restless blood in Steve… There may even be the creative instinct in her also… She's very young to develop it yet – to show whether it really is there and amounts to anything… I should like to live long enough to see – to guide her for the next few years – "
"Of course you are going to live to see Steve's kiddies!" cried the young fellow in cordially scornful protest. "You know perfectly well, Father, that you don't look your age!"
"Don't I?" said Cleland Senior, with a faint smile.
"And you feel all right, don't you, Father?" insisted the boy in that rather loud, careless voice which often chokes tenderness between men. For the memory that these two shared in common made them doubly sensitive to the lightest hint that everything was not entirely right with either.
"Do you feel perfectly well?" repeated the son, looking at his father with smiling intentness.
"Perfectly," replied Cleland Senior, lying.
He had another chat with Dr. Wilmer the following afternoon. It had been an odd affair, and both physician and patient seemed to prefer to speculate about it rather than to come to any conclusion.
It was this. A week or two previous, lying awake in bed after retiring for the night, Cleland seemed to lose consciousness for an interval – probably a very brief interval; and revived, presently, to find himself upright on the floor beside his bed, holding to one of the carved posts, and unable to articulate.
He made no effort to arouse anybody; after a while – but how long he seemed unable to remember clearly – he returned to bed and fell into a heavy sleep. And in the morning when he awoke, the power of speech had returned to him.
But he felt irritable, depressed and tired. That was his story. And the question he had asked Dr. Wilmer was a simple one.
But the physician either could not or would not be definite in his answer. His reply was in the nature of a grave surmise. But the treatment ordered struck Cleland as ominously significant.
To any young man his first flirtation with Literature is a heart-rending affair, although the jade takes it lightly enough.
But that muse is a frivolous youngster and plagues her young lovers to the verge of distraction.
And no matter how serious a new aspirant may be or how determined to remain free from self-consciousness, refrain from traditional mental attitudes and censor every impulse toward "fine writing," his frivolous muse beguiles him and flatters him, and leads him on until he has succumbed to every deadly scribbler's sin in his riotous progress of a literary rake.
The only hope for him is that his muse may some day take enough interest in him to mangle his feelings and exterminate his adjectives.
Every morning Jim remained for hours hunched up at his table, fondling his first-born novel. The period of weaning was harrowing. Joy, confidence, pride, excitement, moments of mental intoxication, were succeeded by every species of self-distrust, alarm, funk, slump, and most horrid depression.
One day he felt himself to be easily master of the English language; another day he feared that a public school examination would reveal him as a hopeless illiterate. Like all beginners, he had swallowed the axiom that genius worked only when it had a few moments to spare from other diversions; and he tried it out. The proposition proved to be a self-evident fake.
It was to his own credit that he finally discovered that inspiration comes with preparedness; that the proper place for creative inspiration was a seat at his desk with pencil and pad before him; that the pleasure of self-expression must become a habit as well as a pleasure, and not an occasional caprice to be casually gratified; and that technical excellence is acquired at the daily work-bench alone, and not among the talkers of talk.
So the boy began to form his habit of work; discovered that sooner or later a receptive mind resulted; and, realizing that inspiration came when preparations for its reception had been made, gradually got over his earlier beliefs in the nonsense talked about genius and the commercializing of the same. And so he ceased getting out of bed to record a precious thought, and refrained from sitting up until two in the morning to scribble. He plugged ahead as long as he could stand it; and late in the afternoon he went out to hunt for relaxation, which, except for the creative, is the only other known species of true pleasure.
Except for their conveniences as to lavatories and bars, there are very few clubs in New York worth belonging to; and only one to which it is an honour to belong.
In this club Cleland Senior sat now, very often, instead of pursuing his daily course among print-shops, auction rooms, and private collections of those beautiful or rare or merely curious and interesting objects which for many years it had been his pleasure to nose out and sometimes acquire.
For now that his son was busy writing for the greater portion of the day, and Stephanie had gone away to college, Cleland Senior gradually became conscious of a subtle change which was beginning within himself – a tendency to relax mentally and physically – a vague realization that his work in life had been pretty nearly accomplished and that it was almost time to rest.
With this conviction came a tendency to depression, inclination for silence and retrospection, not entirely free from melancholy. Not unnoticed by his physician, either, who had arrived at his own conclusions. The medical treatment, however, continued on the same lines sketched out by the first prescriptions, except that all narcotics and stimulants were forbidden.
John Cleland now made it a custom to go every day to his club, read in the great, hushed library, gossip with the older members, perhaps play a game of chess with some friend of his early youth, lunch there with ancient cronies, sometimes fall asleep in one of the great, deep chairs in the lounging hall. And, as he had always been constitutionally moderate, the physician's edict depriving him of his cigar and his claret annoyed him scarcely at all. Always he returned to the home on 80th Street, when his only son was likely to be free from work; and together they dined at home, or more rarely at Delmonico's; and sometimes they went together to some theatre or concert.
For they were nearer to each other than they had ever been in their lives during those quiet autumn and winter days together; and they shared every thought – almost every thought – only Cleland had never spoken to his son about the medicine he was taking regularly, nor of that odd experience when he had found himself standing dazed and speechless by his own bed in the silence and darkness of early morning.
Stephanie came back at Christmas – a lovely surprise – a supple, grey-eyed young thing, grown an inch and a half taller, flower-fresh, instinct with the intoxicating vigour and delight of mere living, and tremulous with unuttered and very youthful ideas about everything on earth.
She kissed Cleland Senior, clung to him, caressed him. But for the first time her demonstration ended there; she offered her hand to Jim in flushed and slightly confused silence.
"What's the matter with you, Steve?" demanded the youth, half laughing, half annoyed. "You think you're too big to kiss me? By Jove, you shall kiss me – !"
And he summarily saluted her.
She got away from him immediately with an odd little laugh, and held tightly to Cleland Senior again.
"Dad darling, darling!" she murmured, "I'm glad I'm back. Are you? Do you really want me? And I'm going to tell you right now, I don't wish to have you arrange parties and dinners and dances and things for me. All I want is to be with you and go to the theatre every night – "
"Good Lord, Steve! That's no programme for a pretty little girl!"
"I'm not! Don't call me that! I've got a mind! But I have got such lots to learn – so many, many things to learn! And only one life to learn them in – "
"Fiddle!" remarked Jim.
"It really isn't fiddle, Jim! I'm just crazy to learn things, and I'm not one bit interested in frivolity and ordinary things and people – "
"You liked people once; you liked to dance – "
"When I was a child, yes," she retorted scornfully. "But I realize, now, how short life is – "
"Fiddle," repeated Jim. "That fool college is spoiling you for fair!"
"Dad! He's a brute! You understand me, darling, don't you? Don't let him plague me."
His arm around her slender shoulder tightened; all three were laughing.
"You don't have to dance, Steve, if you don't want to," he said. "Do you consider it frivolous to dine occasionally? Meacham has just announced the possibility of food."
She nestled close to him as they went out to dinner, all three very gay and loquacious, and the two men keenly conscious of the girl's rapid development, of the serious change in her, the scarcely suppressed exuberance, the sparkling and splendid bodily vitality.
As they entered the dining room:
"Oh, Meacham, I'm glad to see you," she cried impulsively, taking the little withered man's hands into both of hers.
There was no reply, only in the burnt-out eyes a sudden mist – the first since his mistress had passed away.
"Dad, do you mind if I run down a moment to see Lizzie and Janet and Amanda? Dear, I'll be right back – " She was gone, light-footed, eager, down the service stairs – a child again in the twinkling of an eye. The two men, vaguely smiling, remained standing.
When she returned, Meacham seated her. She picked up the blossom beside her plate, saw the other at the unoccupied place opposite, and her eyes suddenly filled.
There was a moment's silence, then she kissed the petals and placed the flower in her hair.
"My idea," she began, cheerfully, "is to waste no time in life! So I think I'd like to go to the theatre all the time – "
The men's laughter checked her and she joined in.
"You do understand, both of you!" she insisted. "You're tormenting me and you know it! I don't go to the theatre to amuse myself. I go to inform myself – to learn, study, improve myself in the art of self-expression – Jim, you are a beast to grin at me!"
"Steve, for Heaven's sake, be a human girl for a few moments and have a good time!"
"That's my way of having a good time. I wish to go to studios and see painters and sculptors at work! I wish to go to plays and concerts – "
"How about seeing a real author at work, Steve?"
"You?" she divined with a dainty sniff.
"Certainly. Come up any morning and watch genius work a lead-pencil. That ought to educate you and leave an evening or two for dancing – "
"Jim, I positively do not care for parties. I don't even desire to waste one minute of my life. Ordinary people bore me, I tell you – "
"Sometimes," she retorted, with delighted malice. And turning swiftly to Cleland Senior: "As for you, darling, I could spend every minute of my whole existence with you and not be bored for one second!"
The claret in John Cleland's glass – claret forbidden under Dr. Wilmer's r?gime – glowed like a ruby. But he could not permit Stephanie to return without that old-fashioned formality.
So John Cleland rose, glass in hand, his hair and moustache very white against the ruddy skin.
"Steve, dear, you and Jim have never brought me anything but happiness – anything but honour to my name and to my roof. We welcome you home, dear, to your own place among your own people: Jim – we have the honour – our little Stephanie! Welcome home!"
The young fellow rose, smiling, and bowed gaily to Stephanie.
"Welcome home," he said, "dearest of sisters and most engaging insurgent of your restless sex!"
That night Stephanie seemed possessed of a gay demon of demonstrative mischief. She conversed with Jim so seriously about his authorship that at first he did not realize that he was an object of sarcastic and delighted malice. When he did comprehend that she was secretly laughing at him, he turned so red with surprise and indignation that his father and Stephanie gave way to helpless laughter. Seated there on the sofa, across the room, tense, smiling, triumphantly and delightfully dangerous, she blew an airy kiss at Jim:
"That will teach you to poke fun at me," she said. "You're no longer an object of fear and veneration just because you're writing a book!"
The young fellow laughed.
"I am easy," he admitted. "All authors are without honour in their own families. But wouldn't it surprise you, Steve, if the world took my book respectfully?"
"Not at all. That's one of the reasons I don't. The opinion of ordinary people does not concern me," she said with gay impudence, "and if your book is a best seller it ought to worry you, Jim."
"You don't think," he demanded sadly, "that there's anything in me?"
"Oh, Jim!" – swiftly remorseful – "I was joking, of course." And, seeing by his grin that he was, too, turned up her nose, regretting too late her hasty and warm-hearted remorse.
"How common, this fishing for praise and sympathy!" she remarked disdainfully. "Dad, does he bother you to death trying to read his immortal lines to you at inopportune moments?"
Cleland Senior, in his arm-chair, white-haired, deeply ruddy, had been laughing during the bantering passage at arms between the two he loved best on earth.
He seemed the ideal personification of hale and wholesome age, sound as a bell, very handsome, save that the flush on his face seemed rather heavier and deeper than the usual healthy colour.
"Dad," exclaimed the girl, impulsively, "you certainly are the best-looking thing in all New York! I don't think I shall permit you to go walking alone all by yourself any more. Do you hear me?"
She sprang up lightly, went over and seated herself on the arm of his chair, murmuring close to his face gay little jests, odd, quaint endearments, all sorts of nonsense while she smoothed his hair to her satisfaction, re-tied his evening tie, patted his lapels, and finally kissed him lightly between his eyebrows, continuing her murmured nonsense all the while:
"I won't have other women looking sideways at you – the hussies! I'm jealous. I shall hereafter walk out with you. Do you hear what I threaten? – you very flighty and deceitful man! Steve is going to chaperon you everywhere you go."
John Cleland's smile altered subtly:
"Not everywhere, Steve."
"Indeed, I shall! Every step you take."
"Because – there is one rather necessary trip I shall have to make – some day – "
A moment's silence; then her arms around his neck:
"Dad!" she whispered, in breathless remonstrance.
"Don't you —feel well?"
"Then," fiercely, "don't dare hint such things!"
"About the – journey I spoke of?" he asked, smiling.
"Yes! Don't say such a thing! You are not going! – until I go, too!"
"If I could postpone the trip on your account – "
"Dad! Do you want to break my heart and kill me by such jokes?"
"There, Steve, I was merely teasing. Men of my age have a poor way of joking sometimes… I mean to postpone that trip. Indeed, I do, Steve. You're a handful, and I've got to keep hold of you for a long while yet."
Jim overheard that much:
"A handful? Rubbish!" he remarked. "Send her to bed at nine for the next few years and be careful about her diet and censor her reading matter. That's all Steve needs to become a real grown-up some day."
Stephanie had risen to face the shafts of good-natured sarcasm.
"Suppose," she said, "that I told you I had sent a poem to a certain magazine and that it had been accepted?"
"I'd say very amiably that you are precocious," he replied tormentingly.
"Brute! I did! I sent it!"
"They accepted it?"
"I don't know," she admitted, pink with annoyance; "but it won't surprise me very much if they accept it. Really, Jim, do you think nobody else can write anything worth considering? Do you really believe that you embody all the talent in New York? Do you?" And, to Cleland Senior: "Oh, Dad, isn't he the horrid personification of everything irritatingly masculine? And I'll bet his old novel is perfectly commonplace. I think I'll go up to his room and take a critical glance at it – "
"Hold on, Steve!" he exclaimed – for she was already going. She glanced over her shoulder with a defiant smile, and he sprang up to follow and overtake her.
But Stephanie's legs were long and her feet light and swift, and she was upstairs and inside his room before he caught her, reaching for the sacred manuscript.
"Oh, Jim," she coaxed, beguilingly, "do let me have one little peep at it, there's a dear fellow! Just one little – "
"Not yet, Steve. It isn't in any shape. Wait till it's typed – "
"I don't care. I can read your writing easily – "
"It's all scored and cross-written and messed up – "
"Please, Jim! I'm simply half dead with curiosity," she admitted. "Be an angel brother and let me sit here and hear you read the first chapter – only one little chapter. Won't you?" she pleaded with melting sweetness.
"I – I'd be – embarrassed – "
"What! To have your own sister hear what you've written?"
There was a short silence. The word "sister" was meant to be reassuring to both. To use it came instinctively to her as an inspiration, partly because she had vaguely felt that some confirmation of such matter-of-fact relationship would put them a little more perfectly at their ease with each other.
For they had not been entirely at their ease. Both were subtly aware of that – she had first betrayed it by her offered hand instead of the friendly and sisterly kiss which had been a matter of course until now.
"Come," she said, gaily, "be a good child and read the pretty story to little sister."
She sat down on the edge of his bed; he, already seated at his desk, frowned at the pile of manuscript before him.
"I'd rather talk," he said.
"Anything. Honestly, Steve, I'll let you see it when it's typed. But I rather hate to show anything until it's done – I don't like to have people see the raw edges and the machinery."
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