The Restless Sex
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"I'm not 'people.' How horrid. Also, it makes a difference when a girl is not only your sister but also somebody who intends to devote her life to artistic self-expression. You can read your story to that kind of girl, I should hope!"
"Haven't you given that up?"
"Given up what?"
"That mania for self-expression, as you call it."
"Of course not."
"What do you think you want to do?" he asked uneasily.
"Jim, you are entirely too patronizing. I don't 'think' I want to do anything: but I know I desire to find some medium for self-expression and embrace it as a profession."
That rather crushed him for a moment. Then:
"There'll be time enough to start that question when you graduate – "
"It is not a question. I intend to express myself some day. And you might as well reconcile yourself to that idea."
"Suppose you haven't anything worth expressing?"
"Are you teasing?" She flushed slightly.
"Oh, yes, I suppose I am teasing you. But, Steve, neither father nor I want to see you enter any unconventional profession. It's no good for a girl unless she is destined for it by a talent that amounts to genius. If you have that, it ought to show by the time you graduate – "
"You make me simply furious, Jim," she retorted impatiently. "These few months at college have taught me something. And, for one thing, I've learned that a girl has exactly as much right as a man to live her own life in her own way, unfettered by worn-out conventions and unhampered by man's critical opinions concerning her behaviour.
"The dickens," he remarked, and whistled softly.
"And, further," she continued warmly, "I am astonished that in this age, when the entire world tacitly admits that woman is man's absolute equal in every respect, that you apparently still harbour old-fashioned, worn-out and silly notions. You are very far out of date, my charming brother."
"What notions?" he demanded.
"Notions that a girl's mission is to go to parties and dance when she doesn't desire to – that a girl had better conform to the uninteresting and stilted laws of the recent past and live her life as an animated clothes-rack, mind her deportment, and do what nice girls do, and marry and become the mother of numerous offspring; which shall be taught to follow in her footsteps and do the same thing all over again, generation after generation —ad nauseam! – Oh, Jim! I'm not going to live out my life that way and be looked after as carefully as a pedigreed Pekinese – "
"For Heaven's sake – "
"For Heaven's sake – yes! – and in God's name, Jim, it is time that a woman's mind was occupied by something beside the question of clothes and husbands and children!"
The boy whistled softly, stared at her, and she looked at him unflinchingly, with her pretty, breathless smile of defiance.
"I want to live my own life in my own way. Can't I?" she asked.
"Of course – "
"You say that.But the instant I venture to express a desire for any outlet – for any chance to be myself, express myself, seek the artistic means for self-utterance, then you tell me I am unconventional!"
He was silent.
"Nobody hampers you!" she flashed out. "You are free to choose your profession."
"But why do you want a profession, Steve?"
"Why? Because I feel the need of it. Because just ordinary society does not interest me. I prefer Bohemia."
"There's a lot of stuff talked about studios and atmosphere and 'urge' and general Bohemian irresponsibility – and a young girl is apt to get a notion that she, also, experiences the 'cosmic urge' and that 'self-expression' is her middle name… That's all I mean, Steve. You frequently have voiced your desire for a career among the fine arts. Now and then you have condescended to sketch for me your idea of an ideal environment, which appears to be a studio in studio disorder, art produced in large chunks, and 'people worth while' loudly attacking pianos and five o'clock tea – "
"Jim! You are not nice to me… If I didn't love you with all my heart – "
"It's because I'm fond of you, too," he explained. "I don't want my sister, all over clay or paint, sitting in a Greenwich village studio, smoking cigarettes and frying sausages for lunch! No! Or I don't want her bullied by an ignorant stage director or leered at by an animal who plays 'opposite,' or insulted by a Semitic manager. Is that very astonishing?"
The girl rose, nervous, excited, but laughing:
"You dear old out-of-date thing! We'll continue this discussion another time. Dad's been alone in the library altogether too long." She laughed again, a little hint of tenderness in her gaiety; and extended her hand. He took it.
"Without prejudice," she said. "I adore you, Jim!"
"And with all my heart, Steve. I just want you to do what will be best for you, little sister."
"I know. Thank you, Jim. Now, we'll go and find dad."
They found him. He lay on the thick Oushak rug at the foot of the chair in which he had been seated when they left him.
On his lips lingered a slight smile.
A physician lived across the street. When he arrived his examination was brief and perfunctory. He merely said that the stroke had come like a bolt of lightning, then turned his attention to Stephanie, who seemed to be sorely in need of it.
When such a thing happens to young people a certain mental numbness follows the first shock, limiting the capacity for suffering, and creating its own anodyne.
The mental processes resume their functions gradually, chary of arousing sensation.
Grief produces a chemical reaction within the body, poisoning it. But within that daily visitor to the body, the soul, a profound spiritual reaction occurs which either cripples it or ennobles it eternally.
Many people called and left cards, or sent cards and flowers. Some asked for Jim; among others, Chiltern Grismer.
"M-m-m'yes," he murmured, retaining the young man's hand, " – my friend of many years has left us; – m-m-m'yes, my friend of many years. I am very sorry to hear it; yes, very sorry."
Jim remained passive, incurious. Grismer prowled about the darkened room, alternately pursing up and sucking in his dry and slitted lips. Finally he seated himself and gazed owlishly at the young man.
"And our little adopted sister? How does this deplorable affliction affect her? May I hope to offer my condolences to her also?"
"My sister Stephanie is utterly crushed… Thank you… She is very grateful to you."
"M-m-m'yes. May I see her?"
"I am sorry. She is scarcely able to see anybody at present. Her aunt, Miss Quest, is with her."
"M-m-m. After all – but let it remain unsaid – m-m-m'yes, unsaid. So her aunt is with her? M-m-m!"
Jim was silent. Grismer sat immovable as a gargoyle, gazing at him out of unwinking eyes.
"M-m-m'yes," he said. "Grief was his due. My friend of many years was worthy of such filial demonstrations. Quite so – even though there is, in point of fact, no blood relationship between my friend of many years and your adopted sister – "
"My sister could not feel her loss more keenly if she and I had been born of the same mother," said the boy in a dull voice.
"Quite so. M-m-m'yes. Or the same father. Quite so."
"I – I simply can't talk about it yet," muttered the young fellow. "If you'll excuse me – "
"Quite so. Far better to talk about other things just at present, m'yes, far wiser. M-m-m – and so the young lady's aunt has arrived? Very suitable, ve-ry suitable and necessary. And doubtless Miss Quest will take up her permanent residence here, in view of the – ah – m-m-m-m'yes! – no doubt of it; no doubt."
"We have not spoken of that."
A moment later Miss Quest entered the room.
"Stephanie is awake and is asking for you," she said. As the young man rose with a murmured excuse. Miss Quest turned and looked at Chiltern Grismer.
"Madame," he began, rising to his gaunt height, "permit me – my name is Grismer – "
"Oh," she interrupted drily, "I've talked you over with the late Mr. Cleland."
"My friend of many years, Madame – "
"We didn't discuss your friendship for each other, Mr. Grismer," she snapped out. "Our subject of conversation concerned money."
"An inheritance, in fact, which, I believe, you allege that you legally converted to your own uses," she added, staring at him.
They sustained each other's gaze in silence for a moment.
Then Grismer's large, dry hand crept up over his lips and began a rhythmical massage of the grim jaw.
"My friend of many years and I came to an understanding in regard to the painful matter which you have mentioned," he said slowly.
"Absolutely, Madame. Out of his abundance, I was given to understand, he had bountifully provided for your niece – m-m-m'yes, bounteously provided. Further, he gave me to understand that you, Madame, out of the abundant wealth with which our Lord has blessed you, had indicated your resolution to provide for the young lady."
There was an uncanny gleam in Miss Quest's eyes. But she said nothing. Grismer, watching her, softly joined the tips of his horny fingers.
"M-m'yes. Quite so. My friend of many years voluntarily assured me that he did not contemplate reopening the unfortunate matter in question – in point of fact, Madame, he gave me his solemn promise never to initiate any such action in behalf of the young lady."
Miss Quest remained mute.
"And John Cleland was right, Madame," continued Grismer in a gentle, persuasive voice, "because any such litigation must prove not only costly but fruitless of result. The unfortunate and undesirable publicity of such a case, if brought to trial, could not vindicate my own rectitude and the righteousness of my cause while gossip and scandal cruelly destroyed the social position which the young lady at present enjoys."
After another silence:
"Well?" inquired Miss Quest, "is there anything more that worries you, Mr. Grismer?"
"Worries me, Madame? I am not disturbed in the slightest degree."
"Oh, yes you are. You are not disturbed over any possible scandal that might affect my niece, but you are horribly afraid of any disgrace to yourself. And that is why you come into this house of death while your 'friend of many years' is still lying in his coffin! That is why you come prowling to find out whether I am as much a lady in my way as he was a gentleman in his. That's all that disturbs you!"
"Madame – "
"Or, to put it plainer, you want to know whether you have to defend an action, civil perhaps, possibly criminal, charging you with mal-administration and illegal conversion of trust funds. That's all that worries you, isn't it? Well – worry then!" she added venomously.
"Do I understand – "
"No, you don't understand, Mr. Grismer. And that's another thing for you to worry over. You don't know what I'm going to do, or whether I am going to do anything at all. You may find out in a week – you may not find out for years. And it is going to worry you every minute of your life."
She marched to the staircase hall:
"Mr. Grismer's hat!"
Jim, seated beside the bed where Stephanie lay in the darkened room, her tear-marred face buried in her pillow, heard the front door close. Then silence reigned again in the twilight of the house of Cleland.
Miss Quest peeped into the room, then withdrew. If the young fellow heard her at all he made no movement, so still, so intent had he been since his father's death in striving to visualize the familiar face. And found to his astonishment and grief that he could not mentally summon his father's image before his eyes – could not flog the shocked brain to evoke the beloved features. The very effort was becoming an agony to him.
It began to rain about four o'clock. It rained hard all night long on the resounding scuttle and roof overhead. Toward dawn the rain ceased and the dark world grew noisy. There was a cat-fight on the back fence. The car wheels on Madison Avenue seemed unusually dissonant. Very far away, foggy river whistles saluted the dawn of another day.
There were a great many people at the funeral. God knows the dead are indifferent to such attroupements macabre, but it seems to satisfy some morbid requirement in the living – friends, a priest, and a passing bell.
Hoc erat in more majorum: hodie tibi; cras mihi.
The family – Jim, Stephanie and Miss Quest – sat together, as is customary. The church was bathed in tinted sunlight streaming through stained glass and falling over casket and flowers in glowing hues. The dyed splendour painted pew and chancel and stained Stephanie's black veil with crimson. Behind them a discreet but interminable string of many people continued.
When the first creeping note of the organ, ominous and low, grew out of the silence, young Cleland felt Stephanie sway a little and remain resting against his shoulder. After a moment he realized that the girl had lost consciousness; and he quietly passed his arm around her, holding her firmly until she revived and moved again.
As for himself, what was passing before him seemed like a shadow scene enacted behind darkened glass. There was nothing real about it, nothing that seemed to appertain in any way to this dead father who had been a comrade and beloved friend. He looked at the casket, at the massed flowers, at the altar, the surplices. All were foreign to the intensely human father he had loved – nothing here seemed to be in harmony with him – not the crawling vibration of the organ, not the resonant, professional droning of the clergy; not these throngs of unseen people behind his back, – not the black garments he wore; not this slender, sombre, drooping thing of crape seated here close beside him, trembling at intervals, with one black-gloved hand gripping his.
A sullen hatred for it all began to possess him. All this was interrupting him – actually making it harder than ever for him to visualize his father – driving the beloved phantom out from its familiar environment in his heart into unrecognizable surroundings full of caskets, pallid, heavy-scented flowers, surpliced clergymen whose cadenced phrases were accurately timed; whose every move and gesture showed them to be quite perfect in the "business" of the act.
"Hell," he muttered under his breath; and became aware of Stephanie's white face and startled eyes.
"Nothing," he whispered; "only I can't stand this mummery! I want to get back to the library where I can be with father… He isn't in that black and silver thing over there. He isn't in any orthodox paradise. He's part of the sunlight out doors – and the spring air… He's an immortal part of everything beautiful that ever was. When these people conclude to let him alone, I'll have a chance with him… You think I'm crazy, Steve?"
Her pale lips formed "No."
They remained silent after that until the end, their tense fingers interlocked. Miss Quest's head remained bowed in the folds of her crape veil.
The drive from the cemetery began through the level, rosy rays of a declining sun, and ended in soft spring darkness full of the cheery noises of populous streets.
Cleland had dreaded to enter the house as they drew near to it; its prospective emptiness appalled him; but old Meacham had lighted every light all over the house; and it seemed to help, somehow.
Miss Quest went with Stephanie to her room, leaving Jim in the library alone.
Strange, irrelevant thoughts came to the boy's mind to assail him, torment him with their futility: he remembered several things which he had forgotten to tell his father – matters of no consequence which now suddenly assumed agonizing importance.
There in the solitude of the library, he remembered, among other things, that his father would never read his novel, now. Why had he waited, wishing to have it entirely finished before his father should read this first beloved product of his eager pen?
Stephanie found him striding about the library, lips distorted, quivering with swelling grief.
"Oh, Steve," he said, seeing her in the doorway, "I am beginning to realize that I can't talk to him any more! I can't touch him – I can't talk – hear his voice – see – "
"Jim —don't– "
"The whole world is no good to me now!" cried the boy, flinging up his arms in helpless resentment toward whatever had done this thing to him.
Whatever had done it offered no excuse.
The reading of John Cleland's will marked the beginning of the end of the old r?gime for Stephanie Quest and for James Cleland.
Two short letters accompanied the legal document. All the papers were of recent date.
The letter directed to Jim was almost blunt in its brevity:
To Stephanie he wrote:
The boy and the girl sat up late in the library that night discussing the two letters which so profoundly concerned them.
Indeed, the old order of things was about to pass away before their dismayed and saddened eyes – eyes not yet accustomed to the burning grief which dimmed them – hearts not yet strengthened for the first heavy responsibilities which they had ever borne.
"I can't bear to leave you, Steve," said the boy, striving to steady his voice. "What are you going to do about college?"
"Well – I – I'll go back to college and finish the term. Dad wanted it."
Neither dreamed of disobeying the desires expressed in the two letters.
"Will you finish college?" he asked.
"I don't know. I want to do what dad wished me to do… I wonder what a course in hospital training is like?"
"Down there at Bayport?"
"Yes… After all, that is accomplishing something. And I like children, Jim."
"They're defective children down there."
"Poor little lambs! I – I believe I could do some good – accomplish something. But do you know, Jim, it almost frightens me when I remember that you will be away two years – " She began to weep, lying there in her big chair with her black-edged handkerchief pressed against her face.
"I wish I could take you to Europe, Steve," he said huskily.
She dried her eyes leisurely.
"Couldn't you? No, you couldn't, of course. Dad would have said so if it was what he wanted. Well – then I'll finish the term at Vassar. You won't go before Easter?"
"No, I'll be here, Steve. We'll see each other then, anyway… Do you think you'll get along with your aunt?"
"I don't know," said the girl. "She means to be kind, I suppose. But dad spoiled me. Oh, Jim! I'm – I'm too unhappy to c-care what becomes of me now. I'll finish the term and then I'll go and learn how to nurse sick little defective children while you're away – " her voice broke again.
"I wish you wouldn't cry," said the boy; – "I'm – I can't stand it – "
"Oh, forgive me!" She sprang up and flung herself on the rug beside his chair.
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