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Will Levington Comfort.

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he wasn't quite sure of his ground.

"There ought to be legislation against people with hair the color of
yours - - " Reifferscheid regarded her a moment before he added, "wearing
hats. You must come over to Staten - if for no other reason - - "

"Oh, I begin to see perfectly now," Paula observed. "You want to add me
to your system of base-burners."

He chuckled capaciously. "Early next week, then?"

"Yes, with delight"

He did not tell her of being worried to the point of travelling far
up-town to ring the bell of her apartment. She could not like him less
for this.... There was a telegram from Charter, when she reached home.
In the next two hours, a thought came to Paula and was banished a score
of times; yet with each recurrence it was more integrate and compelling.
This was Saturday afternoon. Selma Cross returned from her matinée
shortly before six and was alone. Paula met her in the hall, and
followed into the other's apartment.

"I have just an hour, dear. Dimity has supper ready. Stay, won't you?"

"Yes," Paula forced herself to say. "I wanted to ask you about Quentin
Charter. You were called away - just as you were speaking of him the
other morning.... I have not met him, but his two recent books are very
wonderful. I reviewed the second for _The States_. He thanked me in a
letter which was open to answer."

Selma Cross stretched out her arms and laughed mirthlessly. "And so you
two have been writing letters?" she observed. "I'm putting down a bet
that his are rich - if he's interested."

Paula had steeled herself for this. There were matters which she must
learn before making a decision which his telegram called for. Her mind
held her inexorably to the work at hand, though her heart would have
faltered in the thick cloud of misgivings.

"Yes, there is much in his letters - so much that I can't quite adjust
him to the name you twice designated. Remember, you once before called
him that - when I didn't know that you were speaking of Quentin Charter."

"I'll swear this much also," Selma Cross said savagely, "he has found
your letters worth while."

"Is that to the point?"

"Why, yes Paula," the other replied, darting a queer look at her. "If I
am to be held to a point - it is - because, as a writer, he uses what is
of value. He makes women mad about him, and then goes back to his
garret, and sobers up enough to write an essay or a story out of his
recent first-hand studies in passion."

"You say he was drinking - when you knew him?"

"Enough to kill another man. It didn't seem to make his temperament play
less magically. He was never silly or limp, either in mind or body, but
he must have been burned to a cinder inside. He intimated that he didn't
dare to go on exhibition any day before mid-afternoon."

Paula, very pale, bent forward and asked calmly as she could: "I wish
you would tell me _just_ what Quentin Charter did to make you think of
him always - in connection with that name."

"On condition that you will recall occasionally that you have a plate
before you - also supper, which won't stay hot." Selma Cross spoke with
some tension, for she felt that the other was boring rather pointedly,
and it was not her time of day for confessions. Still, the quality of
her admiration for Paula Linster involved large good nature.
".... Extraordinary, as it may seem, my dear, Charter made me believe
that he was passionately in love. I was playing Sarah Blixton in _Caller
Herrin_, - my first success. It was a very effective minor part and an
exceptionally good play. It took his eye - my work especially - and he
arranged to meet me. Felix Larch, by the way, took care of this
formality for him. Incidentally, I didn't know Felix Larch, but my cue
was greatly to be honored. Charter told me that Larch said I was
peculiar for an actress and worth watching, because I had a brain....
The man, Charter, was irresistible in a wine-room. I say in a wine-room,
not that his talk was of the sort you might expect there, but that he
was drinking - and was at home nowhere else. You see, he has a working
knowledge of every port in the world, and to me it seemed - of every
book. Then, he has a sharp, swift, colorful way of expressing
himself.... I told you, Villiers was away. I couldn't realize that it
was merely a new type Charter found in me.... We were together when I
wasn't at work. It was a wild and wonderful fortnight - to me. He used to
send notes in the forenoon - things he thought of, when he couldn't
sleep, he said. I knew he was getting himself braced in those early
hours.... Then, one night at supper, he informed me that he was leaving
for the West that night. He had only stopped in New York, on the way
home from Asia, via Suez. I was horribly hurt, but there was nothing for
me to say. He was really ill. The drink wouldn't bite that night, he
said. We finished the supper like two corpses, Charter trying to make me
believe he'd be back shortly. I haven't seen him since."

Paula began to breathe a bit more freely. "Didn't he write?"

"Yes, at first, but I saw at once he was forcing. Then he dictated an
answer to one of mine - dictated a letter to me - - " Selma Cross halted.
The lids narrowed across her yellow eyes.

"He had said he loved you?" Paula asked with effort.

"By the way," Selma Cross retorted, "did you notice that word 'love' in
either of his recent books - except as a generality?"

"Since you speak of it, I do recall he markedly avoided it," Paula said
with consuming interest.

"No, he didn't use it to me. He said he never put it in a man's or
woman's mouth in a story. Ah, but there are other words," she went on
softly. "The man was a lover - beyond dreams - impassioned."

"About that dictated letter?" Paula urged hastily.

"Yes, I told him I didn't want any more that way. Then Villiers was
back, and beckoning again. The last word I received was from Charter's
stenographer. She said he was ill. Oh, I did hear afterward - that he was
in a sanatorium. God knows, he must have landed there - if he kept up the
pace he was going when I knew him."

In the moment of silence which followed, Paula was hoping with all her
might - that this was the end.

"Oh, I know what you're thinking!" Selma said suddenly. "He has
fascinated you, and you can't see that he's a rotten cad - from what I've
said so far. A woman can never see the meanness of a man from another
woman's experience with him. She forgives him for calling forth all
another woman has - and then shaking her loose like a soiled bath-robe
when one's tub is ready. But it's different when she's the discarded
woman!... He was so deep, I can't believe he didn't know that episodes
were new to me. Likely, he's had so many around the world, that he can't
take them more seriously from the woman's angle - than from his own....
Quentin Charter was the first man to arouse all my dreams. Can't you see
how it hurt when he turned out to be - well, that name you refuse to
utter?"

"Yes, of course, yes, but you suggest more, Selma!"

"He used me for 'copy,' as they call it. His article on the 'acting of
stage-folk after hours,' appeared in a magazine a few weeks later. He's
always a saint in his garret, you know. The article was filled with
cutting cynicism about stage-matters, many of which he had discovered in
the two weeks with me - and laughed over with his wine. I could have
forgiven that, only he made me believe that there was not a thought
apart from Selma Cross in his mind when we were together.... Oh, what's
the use of me lying? I could have forgiven that, anyway!"

"What was it, you could not forgive?" Paula's face was bloodless.

"He told it all about - how easy I had proved in his hands!" the actress
revealed with suppressed fury.

The other shrank back.

"That's where the expression comes in, Paula - the expression you hate.
Drunk or sober - cad's the word. What a woman gives to a _man_ is put in
his inner vault forever. What she gives to a _cad_ - is passed on to his
friends."

Paula arose, tortured as if branded within. Here was a defection of
character which an entire incarnation of purity could not make whole. It
was true that in her heart, she had not been mortally stricken before;
true, as Selma Cross had so bitterly declared, that a woman is not
stayed from mating with a man because a sister has suffered at his
hands.

"I have nothing to say about the word, if that is true." Paula spoke
with difficulty, and in a hopeless tone.

"Please, eat some supper, dear - - "

There was heart-break in the answer: "I cannot. I'm distressed, because
I have spoiled yours.... You have answered everything readily - and it
has hurt you.... I - feel - as - if - I - must - tell - you - why - I - asked - or
I wouldn't have dared to force questions upon you. His letters made me
think of him a great deal. When you picked up his book the other morning
and said _that_ - why, it was all I could stand for the time. His work is
so high and brave - I can hardly understand how he could talk about a
woman whose only fault was that she gave him what he desired. Are you
sure he cannot prove that false?"

Selma Cross left her seat at the table and took Paula in her arms.

"How can he?" she whispered. "The old man knew all about us. One of his
friends heard Charter talking about the easy virtue of stage women - that
there were scarcely no exceptions! Charter hinted in his article that
acting is but refined prostitution. Villiers said because I had a name
for being square Charter had chosen to prove otherwise!... Then see how
he dropped me - not a word in three years from my memorable lover! And
Villiers knew about us - first and last!... I could murder that sort - and
to think that his devil's gift has been working upon you - - "

"You have told me quite enough, thank you." Paula interrupted in a
lifeless voice. "I shall not see him."

Selma Cross held her off at arms' length to glance at her face. "You
what?" she exclaimed.

"He is on the way to New York and will be at the _Granville_ to-morrow
afternoon, where he hopes to find a note saying he may call here
to-morrow night. There shall be no note from me - - "

"But did you write to him, Paula?" the actress asked strangely excited.

"Yes - a little after you left me the other morning. It was silly of me.
Oh, but I did not tell him what I had heard - or who told me!... Finish
your supper - you must go."

"And how did you learn of his coming?"

"He telegraphed me to-day. That's why I bothered you at your supper - - "

"What a dramatic situation - if you decided to see him!" Selma Cross said
intensely. "And to think - that to-morrow is Sunday night and I don't
work!"

Paula felt brutalized by the change in the other's manner. "I have
decided not to see him," she repeated, and left the apartment.




TWELFTH CHAPTER

CERTAIN ELEMENTS FOR THE CHARTER CRUCIBLE, AND HIS MOTHER'S PILGRIMAGE
ACROSS THE SANDS ALONE TO MECCA


Charter had come a long way very swiftly in his search for realities. If
it is required of man, at a certain stage of evolution, to possess a
working knowledge of the majority of possible human experiences, in
order to choose wisely between good and evil, Charter had, indeed,
covered much ground in his thirty-three years. As a matter of fact,
there were few degrees in the masonry of sensation, into which he had
not been initiated. His was the name of a race of wild, sensual,
physical types; a name still held high in old-world authority, and
identified with men of heavy hunting, heavy dining and drinking. The
Charters had always been admired for high temper and fair women. True,
there was not a germ of the present Charter mental capacity in the whole
race of such men commonly mated, but Quentin's father had married a
woman with a marvellous endurance in prayer - that old, dull-looking
formula for producing sons of strength. A silent woman, she was, a
reverent woman, an angry woman, with the stuff of martyrdoms in her
veins.

Indeed, in her father, John Quentin, reformer, there were stirring
materials for memory. His it was to ride and preach, to excoriate evil
and depict the good, with the blessing of a living God shining bright
and directly upon it. A bracing figure, this Grandfather Quentin, an
ethereal bloom at the top of a tough stalk of Irish peasantry. First, as
a soldier in the British army he was heard of, a stripling with a girl's
waist, a pigeon breast, and the soul's divinity breathing itself awake
within. His was a poet's rapture at the sight of morning mists,
wrestling with the daybreak over the mountains; and everywhere his
regiment went, were left behind Quentin's songs - crude verses of a minor
singer, never seeking permanence more than Homer; and everywhere, he set
about to correct the degradations of men, absolutely unscared and
grandly improvident. A fighter for simple loving-kindness in the heart
of man, a worshiper of the bright fragment of truth vouchsafed to his
eyes, a lover of children, a man who walked thrillingly with a personal
God, and was so glorified and ignited by the spirit that, every day, he
strode singing into battle. Such was John Quentin, and from him, a
living part of his own strong soul, sprang the woman who mothered
Quentin Charter, sprang pure from his dreams and meditations, and
doubtless with his prayer for a great son, marked in the scroll of her
soul.... For to her, bringing a man into the world meant more than a
bleak passage of misery begun with passion and ended with pain.

Her single bearing of fruit was a solitary pilgrimage. From the hour of
the conception, she drew apart with her own ideals, held herself aloof
from fleshly things, almost as one without a body. Charter, the
strongly-sexed, her merchant-husband, the laughing, scolding, joking
gunner; admirable, even delightful, to Nineteenth Century men of hot
dinners and stimulated nights - showed her all that a man must _not_ be.
Alone, she crossed the burning sands; cleansed her body and brain in the
cool of evenings, expanded her soul with dreams projected far into the
glistening purple heavens and whispered the psalms and poems which had
fed the lyric hunger of her father.

It glorified her temples to brood by an open window upon the night-sky;
to conceive even the garment's hem of that Inspiring Source, to Whom
solar systems are but a glowworm swarm, and the soul of man mightier
than them all. Sometimes she carried the concept farther, until it
seemed as if her heart must cease to beat: that this perfecting fruit of
the universe, the soul of man, must be imprisoned for a time in the womb
of woman; that the Supreme seemed content with this humble mystery, nor
counted not æons spent, nor burnt-out suns, nor wasting myriads that
devastate the habitable crusts - if only One smile back at Him at last;
if only at last, on some chilling planet's rim, One Worthy Spirit lift
His lustrous pinions and ascend out of chaos to the Father.

The spirit of her own father was nearer to her in this wonderful
pilgrimage than her husband, to whom she was cold as Etruscan glasses in
the deep-delved earth (yet filled with what fiery potential wine!). He
called her Mistress Ice, brought every art, lure, and expression in the
Charter evolution to bear upon her; yet, farther and farther into
heights he could not dream, she fled with her forming babe. Many
mysteries were cleared for her during this exalted period - though
clouded later by the pangs of parturition.... Once, in the night, she
had awakened with a sound in her room. At first she thought it was her
husband, but she heard his breathing from the next chamber. At length
before her window, shadowed against the faint light of the sky, appeared
the head and shoulders of a man. He was less than ten feet from her, and
she heard the rustle of his fingers over the dresser. For an instant she
endured a horrible, stifling, feminine fright, but it was superseded at
once by a fine assembling of faculties under the control of genuine
courage. The words she whispered were quite new to her.

"I don't want to have to kill you," she said softly. "Put down what you
have and go away - hurry."

The burglar fled quietly down the front stairs, and she heard the door
shut behind him. Out of her trembling was soon evolved the consciousness
of some great triumph, the nature of which she did not yet know. It was
pure ecstasy that the realization brought. The courage which had
steadied her through the crisis was not her own, but from the man's soul
she bore! There was never any doubt after that, she was to bear a son.

There is a rather vital defect in her pursuing the way alone, even
though a great transport filled the days and nights. The complete
alienation of her husband was a fact. This estranged the boy from his
father. Except as the sower, the latter had no part in the life-garden
of Quentin Charter. The mother realized in later years that she might
have ignored less and explained more. The fear of a lack of sympathy had
given her a separateness which her whole married life afterward
reflected. She had disdained even the minor feminine prerogative of
acting. Her husband had a quick, accurate physical brain which, while it
could not have accompanied nor supported in her sustained inspiration,
might still have comprehended and laughingly admired. Instead, she had
been as wholly apart from him as a memory. Often, in the great weariness
of continued contemplation, her spirit had cried out for the sustenance
which only a real mate could bring, the gifts of a kindred soul. Many
times she asked: "Where is the undiscovered master of my heart?"

There was no one to replenish within her the mighty forces she expended
to nurture the spiritual elements of her child. A lover of changeless
chivalry might have given her a prophet, instead of a genius, pitifully
enmeshed in fleshly complications. In her developed the concept (and the
mark of it lived afterward with glowing power in the mind of her
son) - the thrilling possibility of a union, in the supreme sense of the
word, a Union of Two to form One....

Charter, the boy, inherited a sense of the importance of the "I." In his
earlier years all things moved about the ego. By the time of his first
letter to Paula Linster, the world had tested the Charter quality, but
to judge by the years previous, more specifically by the decade bounded
by his twentieth and thirtieth birthdays, it would have appeared that
apart from endowing the young man with a fine and large brain-surface,
the Charter elements had triumphed over the mother's meditations. To a
very wise eye, acquainted with the psychic and material aspects of the
case, the fact would have become plain that the hot, raw blood of the
Charters had to be cooled, aged, and refined, before the exalted spirit
of the Quentins could manifest in this particular instrument. It would
have been a very fascinating natural experiment had it not been for the
fear that the boy's body would be destroyed instead of refined.

His mother's abhorrence for the gross animalism of drink, as she
discovered it in her husband (though the tolerant world did not call him
a drunkard), was by no means reflected intact in the boy's mind. A vast
field of surface-tissue, however, was receptive to the subject. Quentin
was early interested in the effects of alcohol, and entirely unafraid.
He had the perversity to believe that many of his inclinations must be
worn-out, instead of controlled. As for his ability to control anything
about him, under the pressure of necessity, he had no doubt of this.
Drink played upon him warmly. His young men and women associates found
the stimulated Charter an absolutely new order of human enchantment - a
young man lit with humor and wisdom, girded with chivalry, and a delight
to the emotions. Indeed, it was through these that the young man's
spirit for a space lost the helm. It was less for his fine physical
attractions than for the play of his emotions that his intimates loved
him. From his moods emanated what seemed to minds youthful as his own,
all that was brave and true and tender. An evening of wine, and Charter
dwelt in a house of dreams, to which came fine friendships, passionate
amours, the truest of verses and the sweetest songs. Often he came to
dwell in this house, calling it life - and his mother wept her nights
away. Her husband was long dead, but she felt that something, named
Charter, was battling formidably for the soul of her boy. She was
grateful for his fine physique, grateful that his emotions were more
delicately attuned than any of his father's breed, but she had not
prayed for these. She knew the ghastly mockeries which later come to
haunt these houses of dreams. Such was not her promise of fulfilment.
She had not crossed the deserts and mountains alone to Mecca for a
verse-maker - a bit of proud flesh for women to adore.... Charter,
imperious with his stimulus, wise in his imagined worldliness, thought
he laughed away his mother's fears.

"I am a clerk of the emotions," he once told her. "To depict them, I
must feel them first."

And the yellow devil who built for him his house of dreams coarsened his
desires as well, and wove a husk, fibrous, warm, and red, about his
soul. The old flesh-mother, Earth, concentred upon him her subtlest
currents of gravity; showed him her women in garments of crushed lilies;
promised him her mysteries out of Egypt - how he should change the base
metal of words into shining gold; sent unto him her flatterers calling
him great, years before his time; calling him Emotion's Own Master and
Action's Apostle; and her sirens lured him to the vine-clad cliffs with
soft singing that caressed his senses. Because his splendid young body
was aglow, he called it harmony - this wind wailing from the barrens....
As if harmony could come out of hell.

Old Mother Earth with her dead-souled moon - how she paints her devils
with glory for the eye of a big-souled boy; painting dawns above her
mountains of dirt, and sunsets upon her drowning depths of sea; painting
scarlet the lips of insatiable women, and roses in the heart of her
devouring wines - always painting! Look to Burns and Byron - who bravely
sang her pictures - and sank.

There are vital matters of narrative in this decade of Charter's between
twenty and thirty. Elements of the world-old conflict between the animal
and the soul are never without human interest; but this is a history of
a brighter conquest than any victory over the senses alone.... Even
restless years of wandering are only suggested. Yet one cannot show how
far into the heights Charter climbed, without lifting for a moment the
shadow from the caverns, wherein he finally awoke, and wrestled with
demons towards the single point of light - on the rising road.




THIRTEENTH CHAPTER

"NO MAN CAN ENTER INTO A STRONG MAN'S HOUSE, AND SPOIL, HIS GOODS,
EXCEPT HE WILL FIRST BIND THE STRONG MAN"


Charter had always been able to stop drinking when thoroughly disgusted
with its effects, but his final abandonment, three years before the
Skylark letters, had lasted long - up the Yangtse to the Gorges, back to
Shanghai, and around the Straits and Mediterranean to New York, where he
had met Selma Cross; indeed, for many weeks after he had reached his own
city in the Mid-West. He had now fallen into the condition in which work
was practically impossible. In the early stages, he had known brief but
lightning passages of expression, when his hands moved with magical
speed upon his machine, and his thoughts even faster, breaking in upon
achievement three or four times in a half-hour to snatch his stimulant.
Always in the midst of this sort of activity, he felt that his work was
of the highest character. The swift running of his brain under the whip
appeared record-breaking to the low vanity of a sot. It was with shame
that he regarded his posted time-card, after such a race. Yet he had
this to say of the whole work-drink matter: When at his brief best under
stimulus, a condition of mind precarious to reach and never to be
counted upon, the product balanced well with the ordinary output, the
stuff that came in quantities from honest, healthy faculties. In a word,
an occasional flashy peak standing forth from a streaky, rime-washed
pile reckoned well with the easy levels of highway routine.

During his first days at home he would occupy entire forenoons in the
endeavor to rouse himself to a pitch of work. Not infrequently upon
awakening, he swallowed a pint of whiskey in order to retain four or
five ounces. Toward mid-afternoon, still without having eaten, he would
draw up his chair before the type-mill to wait, and only a finished


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 10 of 23)