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curse would evolve from the burned and stricken surfaces of his brain.
If, indeed, passable copy did come at last, Charter invariably banished
restraint, drinking as frequently as the impulse came. Clumsiness of the
fingers therefore frequently intervened just as his sluggish mind
unfolded; and in the interval of calling his stenographer out of the
regular hours, the poor brain babes, still-born, were fit only for
burial.

Often, again (for he could not live decently with himself without
working), he would spend the day in fussy preparation for a long,
productive evening. The room was at a proper temperature; the buffet
admirably stocked; pipes, cigars, and cigarettes at hand; his
stenographer in her usual mood of delightful negation - when an
irresistible impulse would seize his mind with the necessity of
witnessing a certain drama, absolutely essential to inspiration. Again,
with real work actually begun, his mind would bolt into the domains of
correspondence, or some little lyric started a distracting hum far back
in his mind. The neglected thing of importance would be lifted from the
machine, and the letters or the verses put under weigh. In the case of
the latter, he would often start brilliantly with a true subconscious
ebullition - and cast the thing aside, never to be finished, at the first
hitch in the rhyme or obscurity in thought. Then he would find himself
apologizing slavishly for Asiatic fever to the woman who helped
him - whose unspoken pity he sensed, as hardened arteries feel the coming
storm. Alone, he would give way to furious hatred for himself and his
degradation, and by the startling perversity of the drunken, hurry into
a stupor to stifle remorse. Prospecting thus in the abysses, Charter
discovered the outcroppings of dastardly little vanities and kindred
nastiness which normally he could not have believed to exist in his
composite or in the least worthy of his friends. A third trick drink
played upon him when he was nicely prepared for a night of work. The
summons which he dared not disregard since it came now so
irregularly - to dine - would sound imperiously in the midst of the first
torture-wrung page, probably for the first time since the night before.
In the actual illness, which followed partaking of the most delicate
food, work was, of course, out of the question.

Finally, the horrors closed in upon his nights. The wreck that could not
sleep was obsessed with passions, even perversions - how curiously untold
are these abominations - until a place where the wreck lay seemed
permeated with the foulest conceptions of the dark. What pirates board
the unhelmed mind of the drunken to writhe and lust and despoil the
alien decks - wingless, crawling abdomens, which, even in the shades, are
but the ganglia of appetite!... A brand of realism, this, whose only
excuse is that it carries the red lamps of peril.

At the end of months of swift and dreadful dissipation, Charter
determined abruptly to stop his self-poisoning on the morning of his
Thirtieth birthday. Coming to this decision within a week before the
date, so confident was he of strength, that instead of making the end
easy by graduating the doses in the intervening days, he dropped the
bars of conduct altogether, and was put to bed unconscious late in the
afternoon of the last. He awoke in the night, and slowly out of physical
agony and mental horror came the realization that the hour of
fighting-it-out-alone was upon him. He shuddered and tried to sleep,
cursed himself for losing consciousness so early in the day without
having prepared his mind for the ordeal. Suddenly he leaped out of bed,
turned on the lights, and found his watch. With a cry of joy, he
discovered that it was seven minutes before twelve. In the next seven
minutes, he prepared himself largely from a quart bottle, and lay down
again as the midnight-bells relayed over the city. Ordinarily, sleep
would have come to him after such an application in the midst of the
night, but the thought assumed dimensions that the bells _had_ struck.
He thought of his nights on the big, yellow river in China, and of the
nearer nights in New York. There was a vague haunt about the latter - as
of something neglected. He thought of the clean boy he had been, and of
the scarred mental cripple he must be from now on.... In all its
circling, his mind invariably paused at one station - the diminished
quart bottle on the buffet. He arose at last, hot with irritation,
poured the remaining liquor into the washbasin, and turned on the water
to cleanse even the odor away. For a moment he felt easier, as if the
Man stirred within him. Here he laughed at himself low and
mockingly - for the Man was the whiskey he had drunk in the seven minutes
before twelve.

Now the thought evolved to hasten the work of systemic cleansing, begun
with denial. At the same time, he planned that this would occupy his
mind until daylight. He prepared a hot tub, drinking hot water at the
same time - glass after glass until he was as sensitive within as only a
fresh-washed sore can be. Internally, the difference between hot and
cold water is just the difference between pouring the same upon a greasy
plate. The charred flaccid passages in due time were flushed free from
its sustaining alcohol; and every exterior pore cratered with hot water
and livened to the quick with a rough towel. Long before he had
finished, the trembling was upon him, and he sweated with fear before
the reaction that he had so ruthlessly challenged in washing the spirit
from his veins.

Charter rubbed the steam from the bath-room window, shaded his eyes, and
looked for the daylight which was not there. Stars still shone clear in
the unwhitened distances. Why was he so eager for the dawn? It was the
drunkard in him - always frightened and restless, even in sleep, _while
buffets are closed_. This is so, even though a filled flask cools the
fingers that grope under the pillow.... Any man who has ever walked the
streets during the two great cycles of time between three and five in
the morning, waiting for certain sinister doors to open, does not cease
to shiver at the memory even in his finer years. It is not the
discordant tyranny of nerves, nor the need of the body, pitiful and
actual though it is, wherein the terror lies, - but living, walking with
the consciousness that the devil is in power; that you are the debauched
instrument of his lust, putting away the sweet fragrant dawn for a place
of cuspidors, dormant flies, sticky woods, where bleared, saturated
messes of human flesh sneak in, even as you, to lick their love and
their life.... That you have waited for this moment for hours - oh,
God! - while the fair new day comes winging over mountains and lakes,
bringing, cleansed from inter-stellar spaces, the purity of lilies, new
mysteries of love, the ruddy light of roses and heroic hopes for clean
men - that you should hide from this adoring light in a dim place of
brutes, a place covered with the psychic stains of lust; that you should
run from clean gutters to drink this hell-seepage.

He asked himself why he thirsted for light. If every door on his floor
were a saloon, he would not have entered the nearest. And yet a summer
dawn was due. Hours must have passed since midnight. He glanced into the
medicine-case before turning off the lights in the bath-room. Alcohol
was the base in many of the bottles; this thought incited fever in his
brain.... He could hardly stand. A well-man would have been weakened by
the processes of cleansing he had endured. The blackness, pressing
against the outer window, became the form of his great trouble. "I wish
the day would come," he said aloud. His voice frightened him. It was
like a whimper from an insane ward. He hastened to escape from the
place, now hateful.

The chill of the hall, as he emerged, struck into his flesh, a polar
blast. Like an animal he scurried to the bed and crawled under cover,
shaking convulsively. His watch ticked upon the bed-post. Presently he
was burning - as if hot cloths were quickly being renewed upon his flesh.
Yet instantaneously upon lifting the cover, the chill would seize him
again. Finally he squirmed his head about until he could see his watch.
Two-fifteen, it said. Manifestly, this was a lie. He had not wound the
thing the night before, though its ticking filled the room. He recalled
that when he was drinking, frequently he wound his watch a dozen times a
day, or quite as frequently forgot it entirely. At all events, it was
lying now. Thoughts of the whiskey he had poured out, of the drugs in
the medicine-case, controlled. He needed a drink, and nothing but
alcohol would do. This is the terrible thing. Without endangering one's
heart, it is impossible to take enough morphine to deaden a whiskey
reaction. A little only horrifies one's dreams. There is no bromide. He
cried out for the poison he had washed away from his veins. This would
have been a crutch for hours. In the normal course of bodily waste, he
would not have been brought to this state of need in twenty-four hours.
He felt the rapping of old familiar devils against his brain. He needed
a drink.

The lights were turned on full in his room. The watch hanging above his
head ticked incessant lies regarding the energy of passing time. He
could lose himself in black gorges of agony, grope his way back to find
that the minute hand had scarcely stirred.... He lay perfectly rigid
until a wave, half of drowsiness, half of weakness, slowed-down the
vibrations of his mind.... Somewhere in the underworld, he found a
consciousness - a dank smell, the dimness of a cave; the wash of fins
gliding in lazy curves across the black, sluggish water; an _eye_,
green, steadfast, ashine like phosphor which is concentrated decay, - the
eye of rapacity gorged. His nostrils filled with the foreign odor of
menageries and aquariums. A brief hiatus now, in which objects altered.
A great weight pressed against his chest, not to hurt, but to fill his
consciousness with the thought of its cold crushing strength; the weight
of a tree-trunk, the chill of stone, the soft texture of slimy flesh....
Full against him upon the rock, in his half-submerged cavern, lay the
terror of all his obsessions - the crocodile. Savage incarnations were
shaken out of his soul as he regarded this beast, a terror so great that
his throat shut, his spine stiffened. Still as a dead tree, the creature
pressed against him, bulging stomach, the narrow, yellow-brown head,
moveless, raised from the rock. This was the armed abdomen he feared
most - cruelty, patience, repletion - and the dirty-white of nether
parts!... He heard the scream within him - before it broke from his
throat.

Out of one of these, Charter emerged with a cry, wet with sweat as the
cavern-floor from which he came - to find that the minute-hand of his
watch had not traversed the distance between two Roman numerals. He
seized the time-piece and flung it across the room, lived an age of
regret before it struck the walnut edge of his dresser and crashed to
the floor.... The sounds of running-down fitted to words in his brain.

"_Tick - tick!... tick-tick-tick._" A spring rattled a disordered plaint;
then after a silence: "I served you - did my work well - very well - very
well!..." Charter writhed, wordlessly imploring it to be still. It was
not the value, but the sentient complaining of a thing abused. Faithful,
and he had crushed it. He felt at last in the silence that his heart
would stop if it ticked again; and as he waited, staring at it, his mind
rushed off to a morning of boyhood and terrible cruelty.... He had been
hunting at the edge of a half-cleared bit of timber. A fat gray squirrel
raced across the dead leaves, fully sixty yards away - its mate following
blithely. The leader gained the home-tree as Charter shot, crippling the
second - the male. It was a long shot and a very good one, but the boy
forgot that. The squirrel tried to climb the tree, but could not. It
crawled about, uncoupled, among the roots, and answered the muffled
chattering from the hole above - this, as the boy came up, his breast
filling with the deadliest shame he had ever known. The squirrel told
him all, and answered his mate besides. It was not a chatter for mercy.
The little male was cross about it - bewildered, too, for its
life-business was so important. The tortured boy dropped the butt of his
gun upon the creature's head.... Now the tone changed - the flattened
head would not die.... He had fled crying from the thing, which haunted
him almost to madness. He _begged_ now, as the old thoughts of that hour
began to run about in the deep-worn groove of his mind....

Andas he had treated the squirrel, the watch - so he was treating his own
life....

Again he was called to consciousness by some one uttering his name. He
answered. The apartment echoed with the flat, unnatural cry of his
voice; silence mocking him.... Then, in delusion, he would find himself
hurrying across the yard, attracted by some psychic terror of warning.
Finally, as he opened the stable-door, sounds of a panting struggle
reached him from the box-stall where he kept his loved saddle-mare.
Light showed him that she had broken through the flooring, and,
frenziedly struggling to get her legs clear from the wreck, had torn the
skin and flesh behind, from hoof to hock. He saw the yellow tendons and
the gleaming white bone. She was half-up, half-down, the smoky look of
torture and accusation in her brown eyes....

Finally came back his inexorable memories - one after another, his nights
of degraded passion; the memory of brothels, where drunkenness had
carried him; songs, words, laughter he had heard; pictures on the walls;
combs, cards, cigarettes of the dressing-tables, low ceilings and
noisome lamps; that individual something about each woman, and her
especial perversion; peregrinations among the lusts of half the world's
ports, where a man never gets so low that he cannot fall into a woman's
arms. How they had clung to him and begged him to come back! His
nostrils filled again with sickening perfumes that never could overpower
the burnt odor of harlot's hair. Down upon him these horrors poured,
until he was driven to the floor from the very foulness of the place
wherein he lay, but a chill struck his heart and forced him back into
the nest of sensual dreams....

Constantly he felt that dry direct need for cigarette inhalation - that
nervous craving which makes a man curse viciously at the break of a
match or its missing fire - but his heart responded instantly to the mild
poisoning, a direct and awful pounding like the effect of cocaine upon
the strong, and his sickness was intensified. So he would put the
cigarette down, lest the aorta burst within him - only to light the pest
again a moment later.

He could feel his liver, a hot turgid weight; even, mark its huge
boundary upon the surface of his body. Back of his teeth, began the
burning insatiable passage, collapsing for alcohol in every inch of its
coiled length; its tissues forming an articulate appeal in his brain:
"You have filled us with burning for weeks and months, until we have
come to rely upon the false fire. Take this away suddenly now and we
must die. We cannot keep you warm, even alive, without more of the fuel
which destroyed us. We do not want much - just enough to help us until we
rebuild our own energy." And his brain reiterated a warning of its own.
"I, too, am charred and helpless. The devils run in and out and over. I
have no resistance. I shall open entirely to them - unless you strengthen
me with fire. You are doing a very wicked and dangerous thing in
stopping short like this. Deserted of me, you are destitute, indeed."

Charter felt his unshaven mouth. It was soft and fallen like an
imbecile's. A man in hell does not curse himself. He saw himself giving.
He felt that he was giving up life and its every hope, but the fear of
madness, or driveling idiocy, was worse than this. He would drink for
nerve to kill himself decently. The abject powerlessness of his will was
the startling revelation. He had played with his will many times, used
it to drink when its automatic action was to refrain. Always he had felt
it to be unbreakable, until now. He was a yellow, cowering elemental,
more hideous and pitiable than prohibition-orator ever depicted in his
most dreadful scare-climax. There is no will when Nature turns loose her
dogs of fear upon a sick and shattered spirit - no more will than in the
crisis of pneumonia or typhoid.

He wrapped the bed-clothes about him and staggered to the medicine-case.
There was no pure alcohol; no wood-alcohol luckily. However, a quart
bottle of liver-tonic - turkey rhubarb, gum guaiac, and aloes, steeped in
Holland gin. A teaspoonful before meals is the dose - for the spring of
the year. An old family remedy, this, - one of the bitterest and most
potent concoctions ever shaken in a bottle, a gold-brown devil that
gagged full-length. The inconceivable organic need for alcohol worked
strangely, since Charter's stomach retained a half-tumbler of this
horrible dosage. Possibly, it could not have held straight whiskey at
once. Internally cleansed, he, of course, responded immediately to the
warmth. Plans for whiskey instantly awoke in his brain. He touched the
button which connected with his man in the stable; then waited by a rear
window until the other appeared.

"Bob," he called down shakily, "have you got any whiskey?"

"The half of a half-pint, sir."

"Bring it up quickly. Here - watch close - I'm tossing down my latch-key."

The key left his hand badly. He could have embraced Bob for finding it
in the dark as he did. Charter then sat down - still with the bed-clothes
wrapped about him - to wait for the other's step. He felt close to death
in the silence.... Bob poured and held the single drink to his lips.
Charter sat still, swallowing for a moment. Part remained within him.

"Now, Bob," he said, "run across the street to Dr. Whipple, and tell
him I need some whiskey. Tell him he needn't come over - unless he wants
to. I'm ill, and I've got to get out of here. Hurry back."

He dared not return to bed now - fear of dreams. To draw on parts of his
clothing was an heroic achievement, but he could not bend forward to put
on stockings or shoes without overturning his stomach, the lining of
which was sore as a festering wound. His nostrils, with their continual
suggestions, now tortured him with a certain half-cooked odor of his own
inner tissues. The consciousness of having lost his will - that he was
thirty years old, and shortly to be drunk again - became the nucleus for
every flying storm-cloud in his brain. He knew what it would be now. He
would drink regularly, fatten, redden, and betray every remnant of good
left within him - more and more distended and brutalized - until his heart
stopped or his liver hardened. And the great work? He tried to smile at
this. Those who had looked for big things from his maturity had chosen a
musty vessel. He would write of the loves of the flesh, and of physical
instincts - one of the common - with a spark of the old genius now and
then to light up the havoc - that he might writhe! Yes, he would never
get past that - the instantaneous flash of his real self to lift him
where he belonged - so he would not forget to suffer - _when he fell
back_.... "I'll break that little system," he muttered angrily, as to an
enemy in the room, "I'll drink my nerve back and shoot my head off...."
But bigger, infinitely more important, than any of these thoughts, was
the straining of every sense for Bob's step in the hall - Bob with the
whiskey from his never-failing friend, Dr. Whipple.... Yes, he had
chosen whiskey to drive out the God-stuff from his soul. What a dull,
cheap beast he was!

The day was breaking - a sweet summer morning. He wrapped the bed-clothes
closer about him, and lifted the window higher. The nostrils that had
brought him so much of squalor and horror now expanded to the new life
of the day - vitality that stirred flowers and foliage, grasses and skies
to beauty; the blessed morning winds, lit with faint glory. The East was
a great, gray butterfly's wing, shot with quivering lines of mauve and
gold. It shamed the hulk huddled at the window. Bob's foot on the stairs
was the price of his brutality.

"Great mornin' for a ride. Beth is fit as a circus. I'd better get her
ready, hadn't I, sir?"

"God, no!" Charter mumbled. "Help me on with my boots, and pour out a
drink. Bring fresh water.... Did Doctor - - "

"Didn't question me, sir. Brought what you wanted, and said he'd drop
over to see you to-day."

Charter held his mouth for the proffered stimulant, and beckoned the
other back.

"Let me sit still for a minute or two. Don't joggle about the room,
Bob."

Revulsion quieted, the nausea passed. Bob finished dressing him, and
Charter moved abroad. He took the flask with him, lest it be some
forgotten holiday and the bars closed. A man who has had such a night as
his is slavish for days before the fear of being _without_. He was
pitifully weak, but the stimulus had lifted his mind out of the hells of
obsession.

The morning wind had sweetened the streets. Lawns, hedges, vines, and
all the greens seemed washed and preened to meet the sun. To one who has
hived with demons, there is something so simple and sanative about the
restoring night - the rest of healing and health. He could have wept at
the virtue of simple goodness - so easy, so vainly sought amid the
complications of vanity and desire. Well and clearly he saw now that
mild good, undemonstrative, unaggressive good - seventy years of bovine
plodding, sunning, grazing, drowsing - is a step toward the Top. What a
travesty is genius when it is arraigned by an august morning; men who
summon gods to their thinking, yet fail in the simple lessons that dogs
and horses and cats have grasped! All the more foul and bestial are
those whom gods have touched within; charged with treason of manhood by
every good and perfect thing, when they cannot rise and meet the day
with clean hearts. Charter would have given all his evolution for the
simple decency of his man, Bob, or his mare, Beth.

The crowd of thoughts incensed him, so he hurried.... Dengler was
sweeping out his bar. Screen-doors slammed open, and a volume of dust
met the early caller as he was about to enter. Dengler didn't drink, and
he was properly pleased with the morning. Lafe Schiel, who was scrubbing
cuspidors for Dengler, drank. That's why he cleaned cuspidors. Dengler
greeted his honored patron effusively.

"Suppose you've been working all night, Mr. Charter. You look a little
roughed and tired. You work while we sleep - eh? That's the way with you
writer-fellows. I've got a niece that writes. I told you about her.
She's ruined her eyes. She says she can get her best thoughts at night.
You're all alike."

"Have a little touch, Lafe?" Charter asked, turning to the porter, who
wiped his hands on his trousers and stepped forward gratefully.

Bottles were piled on the bar, still beer-stained from the night before.
Dengler put forward clean, dripping glasses from below, and stroked the
bottle with his palm, giving Lafe water, and inquiring of Charter what
he would have "for a wash...." Dengler, so big-necked, healthy, and
busy, talking about his breakfast and not corrupting his body with the
stuff others paid for; Lafe Schiel in his last years - nothing but
whiskey left - no thought, no compunction, no man, no soul, just a
galvanic desire - these three in a tawdry little up-town bar at five in
the morning - and he, Quentin Charter, with a splendid mare to ride, a
mother to breakfast with, a world's work to do; he, Quentin Charter, in
this diseased growth upon the world's gutter, in this accumulation of
cells which taints all society.

Charter drank and glanced at the morning paper. The sheet still damp
from the press reminded him of the night's toil in the office down-town
(a veritable strife of work, while he had grovelled) - copy-makers,
copy-readers, compositors, form-makers, and pressmen - he knew many of
them - all fine fellows, decently resting now, deservedly resting. And
the healthy little boys, cutting their sleep short, to deliver from door
to door, even to Dengler's, this worthy product for the helpful dollar!
Ah, God, the world was so sweet and pure in its worthier activities! God
only asked that - not genius, just slow-leisured decency would pass with
a blessing. God had eternity to build men, and genius which looked out
upon a morning like this, from a warm tube of disease, was concentrated
waste! Charter cleared his throat. Thoughts were pressing down upon him


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 11 of 23)