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THE WINE OF LIFE



BOOKS BY
ARTHUR STRINGER

THE SILVER POPPY
THE LOOM OF DESTINY
LONELY O M ALLEY
HEPHAESTUS AND OTHER POEMS
THE WIRE TAPPERS

THE WOMAN IN THE RAIN AND OTHER
POEMS

PHANTOM WIRES

THE GUN RUNNER

IRISH POEMS

THE HAND OF PERIL

THE SHADOW

OPEN WATER

THE DOOR OF DREAD

THE HOUSE OF INTRIGUE

THE MAN WHO COULDN T SLEEP

THE PRAIRIE WIFE

THE PRAIRIE MOTHER



THE WINE OF LIFE



By ARTHUR STRINGER




NEW YORK

ALFRED A KNOPF

MCMXXI



COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
ARTHUR STRINGER



Published, April 1921
Second Printing, April 1921



PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES M? AMERICA



THE WINE OF LIFE



CHAPTER ONE

STORROW stared about the empty hotel-room, now
denuded of its last appeasing touch of the personal.
Then he crossed to the still open window.

As he stood there, vaguely oppressed by the thought of
how life was for ever attaching itself to new soil and was
for ever being torn up from that rootage, the sound of a
hurdy-gurdy floated up through the hot August air. The
notes, mellowed by a rampart of intervening roofs and
further muffled by the distant drone of Broadway, insin
uated themselves into the colouring of Storrow s mood
and lent an overtone of wistfulness to his farewell survey
of those faded walls cobwebbed with fire-escapes. His
week of freedom in that shabby side-street hotel had
not been an unhappy one. He had found nothing repug
nant in its ugliness, in its gilded slatternliness, in its noc
turnal pianos and its noisy house-dogs, in the kimonoed
figures that fluttered about a hallway filled with the be
traying odours of illicit cookery.

It had at least conferred on Storrow the gift of free
dom. And freedom, he knew, was the one thing he
would always demand of life. Elbow-room, he felt, must
always be his, the right to come and go at his own sweet
will, the right to idle or work, to rise or fall, to tool his
own personal destinies upward or downward across the
Great Divides of life as he chose. He remembered, as
he stared idly down at a tarred and gravelled roof lit
tered with orange-peel and empty bottles and cigarette
ends, how the easy-going and slipshod atmosphere of this
third-rate Tenderloin hotel had appealed to him. Its un
ruffled and urban self -concernment, its shoddy and casual



2 THE WINE OF LIFE

reticences, had provided him with the cover he craved,
cover as screening as the hemlocked and the blue-valleyed
solitudes that had once been his.

But now he had finished with it. Finished, too, he
would be with his eager and unattached wanderings about
the city, the city in undress because of its summer-end
heat, the city undraped in its panting misery to his ever-
questing eye. All the artist in him had joyed in the mid
night parks crowded with sleepers, in the half -clad fig
ures, the poses of utter abandon, the huddled and motion
less groups making the greensward look so like a battle
field strewn with its dead. He had gloried in the acci
dental grouping of half -nude children about a water-hy
drant. He had revelled in the Hogarthian intimate nudi
ties of the tenement districts, in the occasional statuesque
pose of an Italian girl asleep on the pavement of an
open area- way, in the lassitude of a painted woman sit
ting under midnight trees, panting for breath, shadowed
from the street-lamps by leaves so motionless they looked
as though they had been stencilled out of sheets of brazen
metal. He had loved to stare from the height of Murray
Hill down the midnight quietness of Fifth Avenue, where
the huge milky lamp-globes fell away in a double row, like
twin ropes of pearls drooping from a languid woman s
throat. He had gloried in gazing at the intermittent
splash of the Madison Square fountain, throbbing and
falling, throbbing and falling, as though it were the heart
beat of the tired city itself. He had liked that city in its
hours of sleep, etherealized by moonlight, transformed
by dusk and mystery into a tranquillized loveliness as
alluring as a star-bathed Coliseum under its violet Ital
ian skies. He had carried a sketching-block about with
him, and had snatched at groupings and poses and taken
notes and carried home pocketfuls of unco-ordinated and
unassimilated impressions, gorging his soul on them, as
voracious as a child let loose in a candy-shop. He was
used to the wilderness, and had long since acquired the



THE WINE OF LIFE 3

lone-wolf habit of wandering about at his own free will,
gathering up what lay in the path of his observation.
And in this newer wild erness of stone and steel and brick,
\vhich could stand to the stranger in its midst even more
desolate than the Barren Grounds themselves, Storrow
rode the flying hooves of Curiosity and Caprice.

Those feverish flights had both humbled him and inspir
ited him. He had barked his shins on the discovery of
how little he knew and how much there was to know. He
had wakened to find himself only one of an army, a mul
titudinous and ever-elbowing army whose mere magni
tude left him a little dizzy and homesick. New York,
he found, was too intent on the pursuit of its own febrile
ends to pay much attention to either him or his trunkful
of clay-modellings so carefully wrapped in cheesecloth.
But there was much to be seen and learned, and in that
vigorous young body was repeated the ancient miracle of
the nestling round-eyed confronting the universe, of
youth peering hungrily across the first ramparts of the
world.

Storrow, moist with the heat, pushed the window up as
far as it would go. He leaned out across the dusty sill,
staring more abstractedly than ever at the scabby and
close-shouldered precipices of brick down which cas
caded the countless fire-escapes of rusty iron. The metal
trellis directly in front of him, smitten by the afternoon
sun, made him think of a gridiron. It had been a
scorcher, that day, one of the worst of the summer-end
hot-spell which was leaving the city as wilted as a let
tuce-leaf on a range-shelf. The sun that slanted over
water-tanks and walls and roofs, Oriental in their hud
dling sky-line, threw creeping blue shadows across the
narrow valley of light-wells and back areas twisting like a
miniature Grand Canyon between the double row of
apartment-hotels and rooming-houses that ran westward
from Times Square towards the rattling Elevated of
Sixth Avenue.



4 THE WINE OF LIFE

Storrow stared impersonally out at his vista of mottled
walls and littered fire-escapes and asphalted back-yards.
Through that echoing valley, by night, countless stray
cats had the habit of reiterating their amorous miseries,
mingled with the pulse of a three-piece Italian orchestra
and the insistent nearby roar of Broadway. Yet both the
sounds and the sights of that little valley had appealed to
him, impregnating his new-found desolation with an in
terweaving tangle of intimacies, leaving his city a little
more humanized, a little closer to him, like an over-
haughty beauty accidentally seen in deshabille.

Even the scene itself struck him as anything but ugly.
He was still too much a new-comer on that triangulated
island of unrest to find any corner of it without some
touch of appeal. Over that welter of sun-baked roofs,
indeed, hung a mist of pale gold, toning down to a thin
wash of green in the softer shadows, deepening again to
a valley-blue where the walls ended in the narrow area-
ways strung like musical instruments with their pulleyed
clothes-lines. Above the eaves, on his right, towered the
dormer-roof of a great hotel, pearled with its rows of
electric-globes. Closer to him, obliquely across the can
yon, stood a much humbler caravansary, plainly a theatri
cal apartment-hotel like his own. He had always thought
of the people in that hotel as cliff-dwellers, with the sills
of their narrow windows crowded by countless betrayals
of extremely frugal house-keeping, half-emptied milk-
bottles, biscuit-cartons, paper-covered marmalade-jars, an
apple or two beside the vivid yellow of oranges, an occa
sional row of beer-bottles, a container of sliced bacon
cheek by jowl with a seltzer-siphon. In the wider win
dows, opening on sleeping-rooms, he had often caught
sight of freshly washed underclothing, thin stockings and
swaying lingerie hanging a little forlornly in that none too
virgin air. Yet even in those humdrum drying garments
Storrow had always found a wayward and wordless ap
peal. He tried to tell himself that it was because their



THE WINE OF LIFE 5

whites and pinks, their suggestive lacy softnesses, pro
vided a needed touch of human warmth, of conciliating
frailnesses, to the urban and indurated hardness of line
all about him. They were like bird-feathers, he felt,
found in a coign along cliffs of granite.

Then Storrow s gaze, as he leaned further out the win
dow in quest of these ever-ameliorating intimacies of life,
fell on a figure which had hitherto escaped him. It was
that of a girl in an open window almost directly below his
own. She sat motionless on the wide sill, across which a
newspaper had been spread. Her feet were crossed
tailor- fashion and rested on the rusty iron slats of the fire-
escape in front of her, where an open book lay face down.
Beside her, on the newspaper, reposed a little scattering of
metal hair-pins, and in one hand, now resting idly on her
knee, she held a heavy white comb. So motionless did
she sit, in fact, that her posture quickly brought to Stor
row s mind the suggestion of a sun- worshipper.

Yet he knew, the next moment, that she had merely
been drying her hair. He could, in fact, plainly discern a
cluster of hair-pins still held between her lips. He no
ticed, as she tossed the loose torrent of hair back from her
face, that her arms and shoulders were quite bare, her skin
standing out a milk-weed white against that waving cur
tain of gloom. For this hair, Storrow noticed, was ex
tremely thick and heavy, a dull mahogany-brown in tone.
Yet it was quite without wave, as uncompromisingly
straight as an Indian s, less suggestive of beauty, in its
thick-flowing mass, than of strength.

Storrow realized, as he watched her, that she in turn
was intent on watching something at the back of the eat
ing-house where the Italian orchestra played by night.
Following the direction of her gaze, he caught sight of a
lean and hungry cat reaching up to a window-sill on
which rested a pan of freshly-boiled lobsters, as red as
a cardinal s cap. That odorous wealth, however, seemed
just beyond the reach of the hungry animal, which



6 THE WINE OF LIFE

stretched and clawed and complained thinly as it contin
ued its ineffectual efforts to reach the pan.

It was a trivial enough incident, yet it made a picture
which in some way became memorable to Storrow, a lean
and padded Hunger writhing and pawing and whining for
that savoury meal, as rich in aroma as it was in colour, just
beyond its reach. It seemed Desire made manifest, un
controlled and torturing appetite typified by an eager and
lean-ribbed body quivering with its self-immuring ache
for the unattainable. It made him think of his long-
treasured print of Rodin s La Porte de I Enjer, of the
great door about which writhed and coiled and reached
the tormented creatures of desire, fevering for that which
they were denied, fighting, unsatisfied, for that which was
for ever beyond their hands.

Yet the next moment Storrow was thinking about
neither the Rodin frieze nor the drab-coloured street-cat
and its cardinal-red shell-fish, for his gaze had wandered
back to the girl in the window so much closer to him.
She had thrown back her loose hair, with a circular back-
toss of her head, and with slow and meditative fingers
was now coiling that heavy mane together. She seemed,
in fact, still to be watching the cat and the lobster-pan as
she abstractedly took hair-pin after hair-pin from her
compressed lips. Her face was quite uncovered by this
time, though it was not her face which Storrow first
studied. What first impressed him were the stockingless
feet resting on the fire-escape rods. These feet were
thrust into faded red Turkish slippers, which drooped
from the toes, leaving bare the line of the heel, as clear-cut
as the heel of a razor. Then, as she swayed forward in
her meditative up-coiling of that heavy rope of hair, he
noticed the thickness of the milky-white shoulders, which
seemed heavy for a body carrying so distinct a note of
slenderness. This impression of plastic solidity was re
peated in the leaning torso itself, so maturely thick from
the full shoulder-blade to the flat firm breast. He knew



THE WINE OF LIFE 7

enough of anatomy to accept this as an announcement of
physical vigour, as a symbol of bodily strength which he
found repeated in the round unmuscled arms, in the full
column of the throat, in, the calisthenic line of the hips
which even the girl s squatting position failed to fore
shorten into heaviness. That body, in fact, made him
think of a young colt s, though he was not sure whether
this arose from its hint of undisciplined vitality or from
something animal-like in the girl s serene unconcern as
to even that partial nudity.

This absence of sex consciousness, in fact, took Stor-
row s gaze back to her face. It was, in many ways, a
remarkable face., though he could not see it as distinctly
as he wished. His first impression of it was one of care
less vitality, of over-abundant and as yet unco-ordinated
ardour. But the next moment this was contradicted by a
subsidiary and more persistent impression of lassitude, of
something that seemed to approach languid and sophisti
cated self-concernment. He was anxious to see her eyes,
as though by them to contradict or confirm this impres
sion. But they were hooded in shadow by the heavy
brows, and all he could be sure of was that they were wide
apart, so wide apart, indeed, that they carried to his mind
a vague hint of Egyptian sarcophagal drawings. In col
our, he conjectured, those eyes would be dark, as dark as
the loosely coiled hair with which the slow white hands
were crowning the over-weighted head. Her mouth, he
could see, was undoubtedly large, and of a vivid red, a
red that gave buoyancy to a jaw already too heavy in its
width of line, accentuating some wordless suggestion of
Orientalism in her character, an Orientalism which the
lucid and wide-set eyes seemed always to contradict. The
nose was short and straight, too thin-bridged to seem re-
pellently sensual yet with a faint out-flare of the nostrils
which might in part have accounted for his earlier impres
sion of wild-animal eagerness. And if the eye-brows
were heavy they at least gave- an air of thought to a face



8 THE WINE OF LIFE

not otherwise intellectual, an air of child-like and wistful
broodingness.

Why it impressed him as a face of depth Storrow could
not tell. That impression, he felt, might be based on its
very contradictions, for his final estimate of her became
one of loose-jointed compactness, of vigour in lassitude,
of strength in slenderness. But the woman, like the face,
was a challenge to him. In each seemed to lurk the peri
lous note of intimacy, the promise of mystery, the arrest
ing air of a barricaded citadel which could be carried
only by storm and violence. And yet he was staring at
a girl, he remembered, who was shameless enough to sit
half -dressed on the window-sill of a Rialto hotel and
dangle her heels on a dirty fire-escape.

What prompted that sudden revulsion of feeling Stor
row could never quite understand. But his interest in the
half-draped figure, for all its pictorial values, seemed to
seep away. His eyes had exhausted her, like a landscape
too minutely over-looked. She became merely a lazy-
bodied young animal sunning herself on the edge of an
unkempt rooming-house fire-escape. There would be
much that was sordid about her, he remembered, just as
the atmosphere in which she existed was sordid. Proof
of this all-pervading sordidness, in fact, came up to him
even as he stared down into the unclean area below. He
could hear the sound of wrangling voices from the base
ment doorway of the very building in which he stood, a
wordy warfare which was not altogether unfamiliar to
him.

He knew, even before that fiercely quarrelling couple
came out into the open, that it was Michael Mullaly, the
blowsy engineer of that ill-kept apartment-hotel, once
more fighting with his wife. In this case, however, their
quarrel soon gave every evidence of developing into some
thing more than the customary exchange of unclean lan
guage. It was already more than a mere clash of words,
for Mullaly, obviously depressed by that unmitigated heat



THE WINE OF LIFE 9

of a New York midsummer afternoon, had sought a
short-cut to oblivion by mingling cooling draughts of bot
tled beer with the firier assuagement of fusel-oil whiskey.
Whereupon, it was equally plain, he was exercising the
ancient and established prerogative of using his fists upon
the features of his protesting helpmate, who, Storrow no
ticed, was not taking this punishment without some slight
reciprocation of force.

Yet that combat now seemed something very remote
from Storrow. He had seen too much of life in the
wilds to be particularly moved by conflict as mere con
flict. The city, too, had already touched him with some
shadow of its self -immurement. It had sufficiently im
pressed him with its first social lesson of remembering to
mind his own business. And the last light-shaft of the
coppery afternoon <sun was slanting like a mellowed cal
cium-flare across the fire-escape platform on which the
bare-shouldered girl was now standing, enriching both
drapery and milky-skinned figure with new and arresting
shadows, picking her out line by line as she stood there
in her careless and preoccupied pose until she seemed plas
tic, statuesque, as marble-like as a Caryatid leaning from a
temple-wall. Again the pendulum-swing of emotion
carried his interest back to a subject which he had only
thought to be exhausted, though it piqued him a little that
this alert figure so near him could remain so unconscious
of his presence there above her.

The combat in the area, however, was already becom
ing more Homeric, more explosive in movement. Stor
row could see the girl on the fire-escape lean further out
over the rusty iron-railing, and for the second time he let
his eyes follow her line of -vision. He could see the big-
limbed engineer, in short-sleeved undershirt and soiled
denim jumper, strike viciously at the upturned face of
his mate. Yet even then the persistent artistic impulse of
the studious-eyed youth prompted him to take impersonal
note of the brawny chest and the huge-muscled biceps, for



10 THEWINEOFLIFE

Mullaly in his younger day had toiled long and ardu
ously as a Pittsburgh steel-puddler and his strength was
still that of an Antaeus. If he seemed intent on exercis
ing what remained of this strength on the less sinewy
sharer of his joys and sorrows, that ragged-waisted fury,
still fighting like a cat, stood able to prevent the conflict
from being an altogether one-sided matter. She contin
ued to dispute his mastery, by tongue and nail and tooth,
until Mullaly managed to draw back his great fist and
bring it flat down on the face of the woman clawing and
clinging to him.

" You brute! " gasped out the bare-shouldered girl
from the fire-escape.

That expletive seemed to awaken in Storrow his first
active interest in the combat below. If it awakened in
him a corresponding impulse towards interference, the
impulse was not an overmastering one. And again Mul-
laly s well-placed fist fell on the upturned face so close to
his shoulder.

"Oh, you beast!" the girl called shudderingly down
into that echoing well of shadow. And that shrill chal
lenge both arrested and nettled the sottish man now sure
of his victory. He lifted his head, like a wounded moose,
and stared drunkenly upward.

" So it s yuh, yuh - ! " he trumpeted defiantly up
out of those echoing depths. And having delivered him
self of that ultimate epithet, absolute in its finality, unsur
passable in its contempt, he went on with the task more
immediately before him.

Storrow heard that foul word, that impossible word,
just as he had heard the throaty soprano of the high-
pitched voice which even shrillness failed to rob of its
richness. He could also catch the quick wince of the
girl s stooping body, as though a lash had fallen across
her bare shoulders.

He was never quite sure in his own mind as to which
it was that fired the train. But through his body went



THE WINE OF LIFE 11

the feral flash, like a splutter of fireworks. He tingled
and burned with a sudden righteous indignation, with
a quick rage that sent him vaulting through the open win
dow to the fire-escape platform in front of him as un
thinkingly as though the room-floor beneath him had
risen and projected him upward and outward. He heard
the girl s gasp of astonished fright as he went scrambling
down the iron ladder and swept past her timorously with
drawn body. But he went nimbly on, with the anger of
a Galahad singing in his ears. It had occurred to him, by
this time, that it was a terrible and unforgiveable thing
to strike a woman. And as he dropped as lightly as a
cougar from the lowermost iron platform to the asphalted
area-floor, close beside the astounded and somewhat
breathless Irishman, he was as drunk, in his own way, as
that denim-clad engineer confronting him. But it was
not on fusel-oil whiskey.

Yet befuddled as that lordly Hibernian may have been,
he understood clearly enough what interference at any
such moment implied. And there was neither concern
nor hesitation in his movements as he swung about and
squared for action. In his day Michael Mullaly had met
and worsted too many burly iron-workers to be intimi
dated by a youth who failed even to observe the ancient
ceremonial of removing his coat before venturing into
battle. Imperiously and impersonally he flung his bat
tered help-mate to one side, intent on disposing of this
trouble-maker who had dared to interfere with an honest
man in his honest diversions.

Nor was there any trace of hesitation, on the other
hand, in Owen Storrow s movements. He was smaller
than the bare-armed Hercules in the denim jumper, but
his four months of North Woods life had left him trained
to the bone. Life in the open, all that spring and sum
mer, had crowned his weeks of hardship with endurance
and self-confidence and the quick- footed resourcefulness
of a cat. More than once, too, he had stood up before



12 THE WINE OF LIFE

\

men quite as burly as Mullaly and had been able to hold
his own. Yet behind that hard-won self-assurance was
the fire of the Crusader, the will of the righter of wrongs,
the morale of the lover of decency outraged beyond en
durance.

This impression of knightly enterprise was intensified,
to Storrow, by the memory of the girl watching him
from her open window. It swayed him with a deter
mination to have the affair a clear-cut one, as brief and
decisive as it was dramatic. But the vast majority of
fights in real life, unfortunately, are not of this nature.
It is something peculiar to the pages of romance, that
quickly and carefully delivered blow of the clenched fist
which sends Evil sprawling ignominiously earthward.
And Storrow soon awakened to the disconcerting fact
that the present combat was not destined to be of that en
gagingly romantic disposition. There was no prompt
knock-out, no cool and lightning-like coup de grace. For
Mullaly, in the first place, was an opponent of unexpected
solidity, a hulk of quite amazing hardness. And the hu
man fist, no matter what the will behind it, is an instru
ment of qualified efficiency when it comes to a matter of
pile-driving repentance into corporeal grossness. Flex
ors and phalanges, when in too violent collision with bone
and sinew, cannot hope to survive such actions without in
jury. And fighting with sore knuckles is altogether as
uninviting as walking with sore feet. Then, too, the
singing fires of fusel-oil whiskey coursing through Mul-
laly s big veins left him disturbingly impervious to any
pains attendant upon well-clumped jaw-bone and hard-
pounded cheek-flap. Muddled as his slow Celtic mind
may have been, the moves and tricks and resources of a
life-time of combat did not altogether desert him. So
when he fought he was able to do so with a stubborn and
groggy science by no means contemptible.

The situation, in fact, began to worry Storrow not a



Online LibraryArthur StringerThe wine of life → online text (page 1 of 29)