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you. You've been home a long time. Are you going - beyond New York?"

"I haven't a thought now of going farther, Mother," he answered....

Again twilight in mid-afternoon - as he crossed the river from Jersey. It
had been a day and night to age the soul - with its inexorable stretch of
material miles. New York had a different look, a different atmosphere,
than ever before. Huge and full of horrible grinding; sick with work and
sick with damp - but above this, the magic of her presence was over all.
It was only four in the afternoon, and he had not asked to see her until
seven. Might she not have watched for him or be near him now? She would
know him from his pictures, and observe him as a stranger, but he had
only his visions.

On the Cross-town to the _Granville_, emotions played upon him of a kind
that he could not have understood in another man a few months before.
Moreover, he felt himself giving way before the vibrations of the big
city. Harried and shrunken, he was, like a youth from the fields; and
the voice he had raised so valiantly from afar against this tremendous
massed soul, seemed now but the clamor of a boy in the safety of his own
door. To and fro along his inflamed nerves crept the direct need of a
drink and a cigarette - old wolves forever on the watch for the spent and
the wounded.... Actually terrorized, he was, at the thought she might
not see him; that there might be no note for him at the _Granville_.
What a voyage in the dark.

For the time, his excellent moral balance had deserted shamelessly. An
adequate perception of his own position and attitude in the eyes of high
womanhood had unhelmed him, quite properly. Nature had finally found a
hot retort which just fitted his case - and in he went.... No purely
physical ardor could have called Quentin Charter out of his study and
far across the continent. Lesser loves than this have plunged nations
into war, and broken the main trend of history into pregnant
digressions. The more penetratingly one regards the man in his present
consuming, the more formidable becomes the conviction that the human
cosmos in the beginning was cleft in twain: one to grope to the light, a
male; the other to suffer the way, her burden, the curse of Eve. When
these mates of fire fulfil their divided destinies and sweep into the
zone of mutual attraction, woe to the satellites and asteroids in the
inevitable cataclysm which follows.... Yet it is out of such solar
throes that gods and prophets are born.... He gave his bag to a boy at
the _Granville_ entrance, and stepped forward to the desk, clearing his
throat and repeating his question.... The clerk rushed through the
letters in "C."

"No, Mr. Charter, - not a letter, but wait just a moment; there was a
telephone-call."

A chill had swept through him as the man spoke. It had not occurred to
him that the word would come in other than her handwriting. This was an
unsigned note, written by the telephone-girl:

Mr. Quentin Charter: A lady who says you will understand,
'phoned that she will be home at seven to-night - if you think
it wise and kind to come to her.

The message was dated at two P. M. Both chill and burning were in the
words. It was strangely unlike her; yet in passing through the
operator's mind, it might have become routine. The word "kind" was a
torturing curb. It placed him on ugly quaking ground. How weak, how
ancient and commonplace, is the human lord after all, when in doubt
regarding his lady's reception of him! Where is his valor now, his
taking of cities, his smiling deaths for honor? Most of all times, he is
man, the male; not man, the soul. Half-way out on the surface-car, he
discovered one of the big "Selma Cross" bill-boards. It was intimate,
startling, an evil omen - great black letters out of the deathless
past.... He stood on the fourth floor of the _Zoroaster_. The
elevator-man had shown him a certain door which was slightly ajar. He
was ill, breathless, and his heart sank strangely with the lights in the
shaft from the descending car.... He tapped on the designated door, and
a deep melodious voice, instantly identified with ancient abandonments,
called gently:

"Come in!"




FIFTEENTH CHAPTER

QUENTIN CHARTER AND SELMA CROSS JOIN ISSUE ON A NEW BATTLE-GROUND, EACH
LEAVING THE FIELD WITH OPEN WOUNDS


Charter was seized with vertigo. It was his sorry thought that the old
scar-tissues, however bravely they sufficed in the days of easy-going,
could not endure a crux like this. But he was wrong. It was the shock to
his spirit, which made of Selma Cross a giantess of vague outlines in a
room filled with swimming objects. Need for the woman of his visions had
culminated in the outer hall. In the substitution there was an inner
wrench, which to one of Charter's intense concentration was like a
stroke; and then, too, the horrible outburst of energy in adjusting the
Skylark spirit to the eminent flesh of this old plaything of his, left
him drained. He steadied himself into the music-room, and sank into a
deep chair, where his heart pumped furiously, but light and empty, as if
it could not grip the blood locked in his veins.

He sat in a sort of trance, glimpses of many thoughts running through
his brain. He deserved punishment. That was all very well, but something
was wrong here. The premonition became a reality in his consciousness
that he had entered upon a great desert; that he was to endure again one
of his terrible thirsts; not a throat-thirst alone, but a soul-thirst.
In the atmosphere of the woman, in the very odor of the room, he felt
the old impassioned lyric-maker crush back into the dominance of his
mind with all the impish exultation of that lower self. Pride asserted
itself now. What an idiot passage in the career of a rising writer! He
should always remember with shame this coming to New York - a youthful
Marius in whose veins was injected mid-summer madness - coming to this
city (where dollar-work is king and plumaged-woman queen) with an
abortive conception from garret dreams.... A strong white light fell
upon the leather cover of her reading-table, but their faces were in
shadow, like the hundred actor faces in photograph upon the wall and
mantel. Selma Cross was studying him keenly. The emptiness of it all was
so pervading - as his blood began to move again - that he laughed aloud.

"Do you know," Selma Cross said softly, "I thought at first you had been
drinking too much. I hardly knew you otherwise, remember. Shall I tell
you what added thought came to me, as you crossed the floor so
unsteadily - looking so white?"

"Locomotor ataxia, I suppose. I hear it is getting quite the thing for
middle-generation New Yorkers.... I expected to see you a little later
in your new play, but not here - to-night - - "

"That is what I thought - that incurable thing. You seem floored. I
didn't know a woman could do that. In the old days, you were
adaptable - if nothing else."

His collar felt tight, and he stretched it out, needing more air in his
lungs and more blood in his brain. It was clear enough to him now how
Skylark had been stricken. The real devastation was that she belonged to
this sort of thing at all; that she could consent to this trick, this
trap. It was all so different from the consummate fineness, the
pervading delicacy, of all Skylark thoughts. Having consented to the
trick, _might she not be listening_?... He did not mind her hearing;
indeed, he might say things which were needful for her to know - but that
she should listen! He writhed. This was not his Skylark at all.... It
was hardly Charter's way now to plunge into the centre of things. There
was a feline elegance in the manner and movement of Selma Cross; she
seemed so delightfully at ease, that he was willing to make it a bit
harder for her.

"I suppose I was more adaptable formerly," he said slowly. "It is
something, however, suddenly to encounter an old friend who has made
good so fearfully and tremendously in the past week. Of course, I had
read all about it. Still, I repeat it was an experience to encounter
your stardom actually on the boards; and more of an experience to find
you here. I'm really very glad that you secured the one great vehicle.
As for your work - few know its quality better than I."

She studied him long, her eyes glowing behind the narrowed lids. "As for
that, you've been biting the flaky top-crust, too," she said finally. "I
never doubted what you could do in your game, but I confess I feared
that whiskey would beat you to it.... Do you know you are wonderfully
changed - so white, so lean? Your work has come to me since you went
away; what else have you been doing? - I mean, to change you so finely."

"Garret."

Her brow clouded at the word. It was as if she had expected to laugh at
him long before this. "Did any woman ever tell you that you're rather a
mean sort, Quentin Charter?"

"Doubtless I have deserved it," he answered. "What are you thinking?"

"I was thinking of your garret - where you gather your victims for
vivisection."

"That's put very clearly."

"Do you think this is big-man stuff?"

"My case is rather an ugly one to look back upon, truly," Charter
granted. "For a long time, it appeared to me that I must learn things at
first-hand. With first-water talents, perhaps this is not necessary."

"A woman finally brings a man face to face," she said with sudden scorn,
"and he becomes limp, agrees with everything she says.... 'Yes, it is
quite true, I was an awful beast. What else, dear?' - ugh!"

Charter smiled. She was very swift and deft in supplying a man's evil
motives. It is a terrible feminine misfortune - this gift of
imputing - and happy women do not possess it. Few men, incidentally, are
deep enough to avail themselves of all the crafts and cunnings with
which they may be accredited.

"I have no intention of destroying the slightest gratification you may
draw, Selma, from questioning me," he said. "If I appear limp, please
remember that I'm a bit in the dark as yet. I came to this floor on a
different errand. I had this errand in mind - not self-examination.
However, I'll attend now in all sincerity. You were speaking of my
victims for vivisection in the garret."

She appeared not to trust him in the least. "I've always wanted
to know if you believed - what an apprentice I really was in
love - give-and-take - when you came?"

"That was easily believed, Selma - - "

"Then you grant I wasn't acting - when I gave myself to you?"

"I didn't think you were acting - - "

"Then _you_ were acting, because when the time came - you dropped me
quite as easily as you would drop a street-cur you had been pleased to
feed."

"Just there you are a bit in error. I was furiously interested, and
certainly not acting altogether, until - - "

"Enter - the wine," she said with a sneer.

"Yes, if you will." He was irritated for a second, having meant to say
something entirely different.

"A woman so loves to hear that a man's passion for her depends upon his
drinking!"

"I have always been very fond of and grateful to you. It was the whole
life that the drinking carried me into - that I had such horror for when,
when I became well."

"You got well very suddenly after you left me," she told him. Her huge
face was livid, and her lips dry.

"On the contrary, I was a long time ill." Her temper chilled his
attempts at sincerity.

"It looked so from those first few - letters, is rather a dignified
word."

"I say it with shame, I was practically unable to write. I was burnt out
when I left here. I had been to Asia - gone from home seven months - and
the returning fool permitted the bars to welcome him - - "

"You seized a moment to dictate a letter - - "

"Silence would have been far better," he said. "I see that now. My only
idea was to let you hear. Writing myself was out of the question by that
time."

"You wrote an article about stage people - with all the loftiness of an
anæmic priest."

"That was written before I left here - written and delivered - - "

"All the worse, that you could write such an article - while you were
spending so much time with me."

"I have never belittled what you gave me, Selma. I could praise you,
without admiring the stage. You are amazingly different. I think that's
why New York is talking about you to-night. I had made many trips to New
York and knew many stage people, before I met you. If you had belonged
to the type familiar to me, I should have needed a stronger stimulus
than drink to force an interest. Had there been others like you - had I
even encountered 'five holy ones in the city' - I should not have written
that stage article, or others before it."

"You were one with the Broadway Glowworms, Quentin Charter. Few of them
drank so steadily as you."

"I have already told you that for a long time I was an unutterable fool.
Until three years ago, I did not begin to know - the breath of life."

Selma Cross arose and paced the room, stretching out her great arms from
time to time as she walked. "You're getting back your glibness," she
exclaimed, "your quick little sentences which fit in so nicely! Ah, I
know them well, as other women are learning them. But I have things
which you cannot answer so easily - you of the garret penances.... You
find a starved woman of thirty - play with her for a fortnight, showing
her everything that she can desire, and seeming to have no thought, but
of her. I discover that there was not a moment in which you were so
ardent that you forgot to be an analyst. I forgive that, as you might
forgive things in my day's work. You put on your gray garret-garb, and
forget the hearts of my people, to uncover their weaknesses before the
world - you, so recently one of us, and none more drunk or drained with
the dawn - than you! Such preaching is not good to the nostrils, but I
forgive that. You are sick, and even the drink won't warm you, so you
leave me at a moment's notice - - "

"There was another reason."

"Hear me out, first," she commanded.... "To you, it is just, 'Adios, my
dear'; to me, it is an uprooting - oh, I don't mind telling you. I was
overturned in that furrow, left naked for the long burning day, but I
remembered my work - the work you despise! I, who had reason to know how
noble your pen can be, forgave even those first paltry letters, filled
with excuses such as a cheap clerk might write. I forgave the dictation,
because it said you were ill - forgave the silences.... But when you came
to New York six months afterwards, and did not so much as 'phone or send
me a card of greeting - Selma called in her silly tears."

"It was vile ingratitude," he said earnestly. "That's where my big fault
lay. I wonder if you would try to understand the only palliation. You
were strangely generous and wonderful in your ways. I did not cease to
think of that. Personally, you are far above the things I came to abhor.
No one understands but the victim, what alcohol does to a man when it
gets him down. I tried to kill myself. I became convalescent literally
by force. Slowly approaching the normal again, I was glad enough to
live, but the horrors never leave the mind entirely. Everything
connected with the old life filled me with shuddering fear. I tell you
no one hates alcohol like a drunkard fresh in his reform."

"But I did not make you drink," she said impatiently. "I'm not a
drink-loving woman."

Charter's face flushed. The interview was becoming a farce. It had been
agony for him to make this confession. She would not see that he
realized his ingratitude; that it was his derangement caused by
indulging low propensities which made him identify her with the days of
evil.

"I know that very well, Selma Cross," he said wearily, "but the stage is
a part of that old life, that sick night-life that runs eternally around
the belt-line."

She hated him for reverting to this point. Holding fast to what she
still had to say, the actress picked up a broken thread. "You said there
was another reason why you left New York so suddenly."

Charter expected now to learn if any one were listening. He was cold
with the thought of the interview being weighed in the balances of a
third mind.

"You've made a big point of my going away," he essayed. "The other
reason is not a pretty matter, and doubtless you will call any
repugnance of mine an affectation - - "

"Repugnance - what do you mean?" she asked savagely, yet she was afraid,
afraid of his cool tongue. "I never lied to you."

"That may be true. I'm not curious for evidence to the contrary. The day
before I left for the West, a friend told me that you and I were being
watched; that all our movements were known. I didn't believe it; could
not see the sense - until it was proved that same night by the devious
walk we took.... You doubtless remember the face of that young
night-bird whom we once laughed about. We thought it just one of those
coincidences which frequently occur - a certain face bobbing up
everywhere for a number of days. I assured myself that night that you
knew nothing of this remarkable outside interest in our affairs."

Selma Cross, with swift stealth, disappeared into the apartment-hall and
closed the outer door; then returned, facing him. Her yellow eyes were
wide open, filled with a misty, tortured look. To Charter the place and
the woman had become haggard with emptiness. He missed the occasional
click of the elevator in the outer-hall, for it had seemed to keep him
in touch with the world's activities. The old carnal magnetism of Selma
Cross stirred not a tissue in him now; the odor of her garments which
once roused him, was forbidding. He had not the strength to believe that
the door had been shut for any other reason than to prevent Skylark from
hearing. The actress had not minded how their voices carried, so long as
_he_ was being arraigned.... The air was devitalized. It was as if they
were dying of heart-break - without a sound.... It had been so
wonderful - this thought of finding his mate after the æons, his
completion - a woman beautiful with soul-age and spiritual light....

Selma Cross was speaking. Charter stirred from his great trouble. She
was changed, no longer the clever mistress of a dramatic hour.... Each
was so burdened with a personal tragedy that pity for the other was slow
to warm between them.

"Do you mean that old Villiers paid the night-bird to watch us - to learn
where we went, and possibly what we said?" she was saying hoarsely.
Selma Cross felt already that her cad was exploded.

"Yes, and that was unpleasant," Charter told her. "I didn't like the
feel of that procurer's eyes, but what revolted me was Villiers himself.
I took pains to learn his name the next day - that last day. There isn't
a more unclean human package in New York.... It was so unlike you. I
couldn't adjust the two. I couldn't be where he had been. I was sick
with my own degradation. I went back to my garret."

Selma Cross was crippled; she saw there was no lie in this. At what a
price had been bought the restoration of faith for Paula Linster!... She
had heard after their compact about Villiers' early days. There had been
times when her fingers itched to tighten upon his scrawny throat. To
have Quentin Charter hear this record was fire in her veins; it embraced
the added horror that Stephen Cabot might also hear.... There was
nothing further with which to charge the man before her. She nursed her
wrath to keep from crying out.

"Was it a man's way to give me no chance to explain?" she demanded.

"Broadway knew Villiers."

"I did not!"

"Anyway, I couldn't get it straight in my mind, then," Charter said
hastily. "You're no vulgar woman, mad after colors and dollars. You love
your work too much to be one of those insatiable deserts of passion. Nor
are you a creature of black evolution who prefers the soul, to the body
of man, for a plaything.... You were all that was generous and normally
fervent with me.... Let's cut the subject. It does not excuse me for not
calling when I came to New York. You were nothing if not good to me."

"Then Villiers paid to find out things about us," she said slowly. "He
said you bragged about such matters to your friends."

Charter shivered. "I fail to see how you troubled about a man not
writing - if you could believe that about him."

"I didn't see how he could know our places of meeting - any other way. I
should never have seen him again, if he hadn't made me believe this of
you."

Charter scarcely heard her. The thought was inevitable now that the
actress might have represented him to Skylark as one with the loathed
habit of talking about women to his friends. The quick inclination to
inquire could not overcome his distaste for mentioning a dear name in
this room. The radiant, flashing spirit behind the letters did not
belong here.... His brain ached with emptiness; he wondered continually
how he could ever fill the spaces expanded by the Skylark's singing....

In the brain of Selma Cross a furious struggle was joined. Never before
had she been given to see so clearly her own limitations - and this in
the high light of her great dramatic triumph. Her womanhood contained
that mighty quality of worshiping intellect. This, she had loved in
Charter long ago; in Stephen Cabot now. The inner key to her greatness
was her capacity to forget the animal in man - if he proved a brain.
There is only one higher reverence - that of forgetting brain to worship
soul. Perceiving the attitude of Quentin Charter to her old life, it was
made clear to her that she must preserve a lie in her relation with
Stephen Cabot; if, indeed, the playwright did not learn outside, as
Charter had done. It was plain that he did not know yet, since he had
not run from her - to a garret somewhere. What a hideous mockery was this
night - begun in pride! Distantly she was grateful that Paula Linster was
at hand to be restored, but her own mind was whipped and cowed by its
thoughts - so there was little energy for another's romance.... Charter
had made no comment on her last remark. She realized now that his
thoughts were bearing him close to the truth.

"You say they forced you to cast out your enemy," she declared hoarsely.
"I cast out mine of my own accord. If there is palliation for you, there
should be for a woman in her first experience. You asked me to stretch
my imagination about a drink-reaction making you avoid me. I ask you,
how is a woman, for the first time alone with a man - to know that he is
different from other men? Add to this, a woman who has come up from the
dregs - for years in the midst of the slum-blooms of the chorus? What I
heard from them of their nights - would have taxed the versatility of
even Villiers - to make me see him lower than I expected! I ask you - how
did I know he was an exception - rather than the rule among the
Glowworms?"

"I'm rather glad you said that," Charter declared quickly. "It's a point
of view I'm grateful for. Do you wonder that the life from which you
have risen to one of the regnant queens has become inseparable in my
mind with shuddering aversion?"

In the extremity of her suffering, her mind had reverted, as an artist's
always does when desperately pressed, to thoughts of work - work, the
healer, the refuge where devils truly are cast out. Even in her work she
now encountered the lash, since Charter despised it. Literally, she was
at bay before him.

"Always that!" she cried. "It is detestable in you always to blame my
work. I broke training. I should have won without the damned angel. You
degraded yourself for years in your work, but I don't hear you blaming
art for your debaucheries! You have sat alone so long that you think all
men outside are foul. You sit high in your attic, so that all men look
like bugs below!"

"There is something in what you say," he answered, aroused by her
bigness and strength. "Yet in my garret, I do not deal with rootless
abstractions. Everything has its foundation in actual observation. I
moved long among the play-managers, and found them men of
huckster-minds - brainless money-bags, dependent upon every passing wind
of criticism. I tell you, when one talked to them or to their
office-apes - one felt himself, his inner-self, rushing forth as if to
fill something bottomless - - "

"You do not know Vhruebert - - "

"Eliminate him. I am not speaking of any particular man. I do not mean
all playwrights when I say that I found playwrights as a class, not
literary workers - but literary tricksters. I am not speaking of _The
Thing_, nor of its author, of whom I have heard excellent word - when I
say that plays are not written, but rewritten by elementals, who,


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 13 of 23)