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Will Levington Comfort.

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through their sheer coarseness, sense the slow vibrations of the mob,
and feculate the original lines to suit."

"Bah - an idea from one of your nights, when you tried to drown the blue
devils! It broods over all your thinking! You forget the great army,
that silent army, which is continually lifting itself artistically by
writing one after another - impossible plays. You forget the great hearts
of the players - men and women who pull together for big results."

"I am not speaking of the vast library of manuscript failures, but of a
small proportion which get into the sinister glare of Broadway - - "

"My God, Broadway is not New York!"

"For which I am powerfully glad," he answered with energy. "As for warm
human hearts - there is warmth and loyalty, genuine tears and decent
hopes in every brothel and bar - yet the black trends of their existence
course on. This was so hard for me to learn, that I have it very
clearly.... I remember the opening night of Martha Boardman as a
star - telegrams pouring in, critics besieging her dressing-room. Even
her manager didn't know what he had, until the critics told him the play
would stay in New York a year - yet his name was on the boards above the
star and bigger than the author's. I watched the bleak, painted faces of
the women and heard their false voices acclaiming the new star. What
they had in their hearts was not praise, but envy. Their words were
sham, indecency and lying. Eternally simulating - that's the stage life.
Pity the women - poor Maachas, if you will - but their work is damnable,
nevertheless. It is from such unhappy creatures evading motherhood that
youths get the abominable notion that real manhood lies in the loins."

"Poor youths - go on! When you have finished I shall tell you something."

"Don't misunderstand me, Selma Cross. No one knows better than I - how
the sexes prey upon each other - how they drag each other to the ground.
Only I was thinking of the poor things in ties, canes, cigarettes and
coatings - out catching!... I saw the whole horrid, empty game of the
stage. You have come wonderfully and differently into the glare, but let
me ask where is Martha Boardman to-night - a few short years later?"

"Yes, she was tired, her energy burned out, when she finally arrived.
It's a stiff grade," Selma Cross said gently.

"I would explain it, that she was prostituted from _excessive
simulation_ - season after season of simulation - emotion after emotion
false to herself! The Law says, 'Live your own life.' The Stage says,
'Act mine,' - so pitiably often a poor playwright's abortive sensations!
What can happen to a body that continually makes of itself a lying
instrument? Like the queen-bee whose whole life is made up of
egg-laying - the brain of this poor purveyor of emotions becomes a waxy
pulp. As for her soul - it is in God's hands - let us hope."

"It is good to laugh at you, Quentin Charter. You have another appetite.
You wanted alcohol when I knew you first - now you thirst after purists
and winged women. I have a lover now who can live among men, soar just
as high as you do, work with just as much greatness and strength,
without ever having degraded himself or believed all human creatures
vile. The stage has its shams, its mockeries, but its glories, too. It
is not all deranged by money-bags. The most brilliant of your writers
give us our lines - the most wonderful of your mystics. It is true we
simulate; true that ours is a constant giving; but call in your
garret-high logic now, Sir Prophet: Look at the tired empty faces of my
company, look at mine, after we have finished _The Thing_; then look at
the strengthened grip on life and the lifted hopes which, each night,
the multitude takes from out our breasts - and call ours a prostitution,
if you can!"

Charter arose and extended his hand, which she took gracelessly, but was
instantly sorry that she had misjudged his intent.

"Can't you see, Selma Cross, that you and I have no difference, no point
for argument, if the general run of plays were like _The Thing_ - as you
make me see it? We had eliminated this from the discussion, but I have
nothing but praise for Vhruebert, nothing but enthusiasm for Mr. Cabot
and for you - if the combination gives the people an expansion of hope
and a lifted ideal. Do that, and you need not reckon with critics."

Instantly she changed her point of view again, so that he was both
chilled and puzzled. "I should have been glad to come out in any
successful play," she said wearily. "_The Thing_ just happens to have an
uplift - - "

"So much is accomplished for you, then. You will never be content again
with a play that has not. Oh, I don't mean ostensible good,
melodramatically contrasted with obvious bad, but the subtle inspiration
of real artists - that marvellous flexibility of line and largeness of
meaning that fits about every life! Just as you can draw fresh strength
again and again from a great poem; so, in performing a great play - one
does not act, but lives!"

"Are you going?" she questioned absently.

"Yes, I confess I haven't been so consumed in years - - "

She drew close to him.... "It has been dramatic, if not literary, hasn't
it?" Her nostrils dilated and her lower lip was drawn back between her
teeth.

He smiled.

"I feel burnt out, too," she went on softly. "It has been strange
to be with you again - almost like - those early mornings.... Did you
ever hear me calling you - 'way off there in the West? I used to lie
awake, all feverish after you went away, calling in a whisper,
'Quentin - Quentin!...' It seemed you must come, if you were alive. There
were times after you went away, that I would have given this week's
victory, which I saw from afar, - to have you rush in for just one
hour!... In God's name," she cried suddenly, "is there really this sort
of honor in living man - is it because you hate me - or do you have to
drink to take a woman in your arms? You, who used to be - singing
flames?"

Charter was not unattracted, but his self-command was strangely
imperious. There was magnetism now in the old passion - but a flutter of
wings broke the attraction.... Darkness covered the wings, and the song
was stilled; yet in that faint rustling, was enchantment which changed
to brute matter - these open arms and the rising breast.

"I'm afraid it is as you said - about the anæmic priest," he muttered
laughingly.... And then it occurred to him that there might have been a
trick to her tempting.... From this point he was sexless and could pity
her, though his nerves were raw from her verbal punishments. It was
altogether new in his experience - this word-whipping; and though he had
not sharpened a sentence in retaliation, he could not but see the
ghastly way in which a woman is betrayed by her temper, which checks a
man's passion like a sudden fright. Between a woman given to rages and
her lover - lies a naked sword. Consummate, in truth, is the siren who
has mastered the art of silence.... Selma Cross sank back into a chair.
The world's wear was on her brow and under her eyes, as she laughed
bitterly.

"You always had a way of making me sick of life," she said strangely. "I
wonder if ever there was a humiliation so artistically complete as
mine?"

This was another facet to the prism of the woman. Charter could not be
quite certain as to her present intent, so frequently alternating had
been the currents of her emotion during the interview. Typically an
actress, she had run through her whole range of effects. He was not
prepared yet to say which was trick, which reality; which was the woman,
Selma Cross, or the tragedienne. He did not miss the thought that his
theory was amazingly strengthened here - the theory that moral
derangement results from excessive simulation.

"You - would - not - kiss - me," she repeated. "For my own sake, I'd like to
believe - that you're trying to be true to some one, - but it's all rot
that there are men like that! It's because I no longer tempt you - you
spook!"

"You said you had a lover - - "

She shivered. "You left me unfinished." There was a tragic plaint in her
tone, and she added hastily, "There was a reason for my trying you.... I
think the most corroding of the knives you have left in me to-night, is
that you have refused to ask why I brought you here - refused even to
utter the name - of the woman you expected to see - _in my presence_....
You may be a man; you may be a cad; you may be a new appetite, or a God
resurrected out of a Glowworm. I either hate or love you - or both - to
the point of death! Either way - remember this - I'll be square as a
die - to you and to my friend. You'll begin to see what I
mean - to-morrow, I think...."

He was at the door. "Good-night," he said and touched the signal for the
elevator.

She called him back, "Come and see me - at my best - at the
_Herriot_ - won't you?"

"Yes - - "

"But tell me what performance - and where your seat is - - "

"... Good-night."

The car stopped at the floor.




SIXTEENTH CHAPTER

PAULA FINDING THAT BOTH GIANTS HAVE ENTERED HER CASTLE, RUSHES IN TUMULT
INTO THE NIGHT


It was after eight that Sunday night, when Paula emerged from the
elevator in the upper-hall of the _Zoroaster_, and noted that the door
of the Selma Cross apartment was ajar.... The interval since she had
parted from the actress the evening before had been abundant with
misery. Almost, she had crossed the bay to visit the Reifferscheids;
would have done so, indeed, had she been able to 'phone her coming. Her
rooms had become a dismal oppression; Bellingham haunted her
consciousness; there were moments when she was actually afraid there
alone.

All Saturday night she had sleeplessly tossed, knowing that Quentin
Charter was speeding eastward, and dreading the moment when he should
arrive in the city and find no welcoming note from her. She dared not be
in her rooms after he was due to reach the _Granville_, lest he call her
by telephone or messenger - and her purpose of not seeing him be
destroyed by some swift and salient appeal. She had waited until after
the hour in which he had asked to call, to be sure that this time he
would have given up all hope of seeing her. The prospect now of entering
her apartment and remaining there throughout the night, challenged every
ounce of will-force she possessed....

Battling with loneliness and bereavement, as she had been for hours,
Paula was grateful to note, by the open door, that the actress was at
home, even though she had left her the evening before, hurt and
disappointed by the other's swift change of manner upon learning that
Quentin Charter was to be in New York to-day.... It was with a startling
but indefinable emotion that she heard the man's voice now through the
open door. Stephen Cabot was there, she thought, as she softly let
herself in to the place of ordeals, which her own flat had become.

In the dark and silence of the inner hall, the old enemy swept into her
consciousness - again the awful localizations of the preying force! The
usual powers of mind scattered, as in war the pith of a capital's
garrisons rush forth to distant borders. By habit, her hand was upon the
button, but she did not turn on light. Instead, she drew back, steeling
her will to remember her name, her place in the world, her friends.
Harshly driven, yet Paula repressed a cry, and fought her way out into
the main hall - as from the coiling suction of a maelstrom. Even in her
terror, she could not but repress a swift sense of victory, in that she
had escaped from the vortex of attraction - her own rooms.

The man's voice reached her again, filled her mind with amazing
resistance - so that the point of the occultist's will was broken.
Suddenly, she remembered that she had once heard Stephen Cabot,
protesting that he was quite well - at the end of the first New York
performance of _The Thing_, and that his tones were inseparably
identified with his misfortune. The voice she heard now thrilled her
like an ancient, but instantly familiar, harmony. It was not Stephen
Cabot's. She stood at the open door, when the vehemence of Selma Cross,
who was now speaking, caused her to refrain from making her presence
known. The unspeakable possibility, suddenly upreared in her mind,
banished every formality. The full energies of her life formed in a
prayer that she might be wrong, as Paula peered through the inner hall,
and for the first time in the flesh glimpsed Quentin Charter.

She was standing before the elevator-shaft and had signaled for the car
eternities ago. Selma Cross was moving up and down the room within, but
her words though faintly audible, had no meaning to the woman without.
Paula's mind seemed so filled with sayings from the actress that there
was no room for the interpretation of a syllable further. One sentence
of Charter's startled her with deadly pain.... She could wait no longer,
and started to walk down. Half-way to the main-floor, the elevator sped
upward to answer her bell.... She was very weak, and temptation was
fiercely operative to return to her rooms, when she heard a slow, firm
step ascending the flight below. She turned from the stairs on the
second floor, just as the huge, lean shoulders of Bellingham appeared on
the opposite side of the elevator-shaft.

The two faced without words. His countenance was livid, wasted, but his
eyes were of fire. Paula lost herself in their power. She knew only that
she must return with him. There was no place to go; indeed, to return
with him now seemed normal, rational - until the brightly-lit car rushed
down and stopped before them.

"Excuse me for keeping you waiting, Miss Linster," the elevator-man
said, "but I had to carry a message to the rear."

In the instantaneous break of Bellingham's concentration, Paula
recovered herself sufficiently to dart into the car.

"Down, if you please," she said hoarsely. "The gentleman is going up."

Bellingham, who had started to follow, was stopped by the sliding-door.
The conductor called that he would be back directly, as his car slid
down.... In the untellable disorganization of mind, Paula knew for the
moment only this: she must reach the outer darkness instantly or expire.
In that swift drop to the main floor, and in the brief interval required
to stop the car and slide the door, she endured all the agony of
tightened fingers upon her throat. There was an ease in racing limbs, as
she sped across the tiles to the entrance, as a frightened child rushes
from a dark room. She would die if the great door resisted - pictured it
all before her hand touched the knob. She would turn, scream, and fall
from suffocation. Her scream would call about her the horror that she
feared.

The big door answered, as it seemed, with a sort of leisurely dignity to
her spasm of strength - and out under the rain-blurred lamps, she ran,
ready to faint if any one called, and continually horrified lest
something pluck at her skirts - thus to Central Park West. An Eighth
Avenue car was approaching, half a square above. To stand and wait, in
the fear lest Bellingham reach the corner in time for the car, assailed
the last of her vitality. It was not until she had boarded it, and was
beyond reach of a pedestrian on Cathedral Way, that she breathed as one
who has touched shore after the Rapids. Still, every south-bound cab
renewed her panic. She could have made time to South Ferry by changing
to the Elevated, but fear of encountering the Destroyer prevented this.
Fully three-quarters of an hour was used in reaching the waiting-room,
where she was fortunate in catching a Staten Island boat without delay.
Every figure that crossed the bridge after her, until the big ferry put
off, Paula scrutinized; then sank nearly fainting into a seat.

Bellingham's plot was clear to her mind, as well as certain elements of
his craft to obviate every possibility of failure. He had doubtless seen
her enter the house, and timed his control to dethrone her volition as
she reached her rooms. Since the elevator-man would not have taken him
up, without word from her, Bellingham had hastened in and started up the
stairs when the car was called from the main floor. His shock at finding
her in the second-hall was extraordinary, since he was doubtless
struggling with the entire force of his concentration, to hold her in
the higher apartment and to prepare her mind for his own reception. It
was that moment that the elevator-man had saved her; yet, she could not
forget how the voice of Quentin Charter had broken the magician's power
a moment before; and it occurred to her now how wonderfully throughout
her whole Bellingham experience, something of the Westerner's spirit had
sustained her in the crises - Quentin Charter's book that first night in
Prismatic Hall; Quentin Charter's letter to which she had clung during
the dreadful interview in the Park....

As for Quentin Charter rushing immediately to the woman of lawless
attractions, because he had not received the hoped-for note at the
_Granville_ - in this appeared a wantonness almost beyond belief. Wearily
she tried to put the man and his base action entirely out of mind. And
Selma Cross, whose animation had been so noticeable when informed of
Charter's coming, had fallen beneath the reach of Paula's emotions....
She could pity - with what a torrential outpouring - could she pity "that
finest, lowest head!"

She stepped out on deck. The April night was inky-black. All day there
had been a misty rain from which the chill of winter was gone. The
dampness was sweet to breathe and fresh upon her face. The smell of
ocean brought up from the subconscious, a thought already in tangible
formation there. The round clock in the cabin forward had indicated
nine-forty-five. It seemed more like another day, than only an hour and
a half ago, that she had caught the Eighth Avenue car at Cathedral Way.
The ferry was nearing the Staten slip. In a half-hour more, she would
reach Reifferscheid's house. Her heart warmed with gratitude for a
friend to whom she could say as little or as much as she pleased, yet
find him, heart and home, at her service. One must be terrified and know
the need of a refuge in the night to test such values. A few hours
before, she had rejected the thought of going, because a slight
formality had not been attended to. Hard pressed now, she was seeking
him in the midst of the night.... At the mention of the big man's name,
the conductor on the Silver Lake car took her in charge, helped her off
at the right road, and pointed out the Reifferscheid light. Thus she
felt her friend's kindness long before she heard the big elms whispering
over his cottage. The front-window was frankly uncurtained, and the
editor sat within, soft-shirted and eminently comfortable beside a
green-shaded reading-lamp. She even saw him drop his book at her step
upon the walk. A moment later, she blinked at him laughingly, as he
stood in the light of the wide open doorway.

"Properly 'Driven From Home,' I suppose I should be tear-stained and in
shawl and apron," she began.

He laughed delightedly, and exclaimed: "How could Father be so
obdurate - alas, a-a-las! Lemme see, this is a fisherman's hut on the
moors, or a gardener's lodge on the shore. Anyway, it's good to have you
here.... Annie!"

He took her hat and raincoat, wriggling meanwhile into a coat of his
own, arranged a big chair before the grate, then removed her rubbers.
Not a question did he ask, and Sister Annie's greeting presently, from
her chair, was quite the same - as if the visit and the hour were exactly
in order.

"You'll stay a day or two, won't you?" he asked. "Honestly, I don't like
the way they treat you up there beyond the Park.... It will be fine
to-morrow. This soft rain will make Mother Earth turn over and take an
eye-opener - - "

"The truth is, I want to stay until there's a ship for the Antilles,"
she told him, "and I don't know when the first one goes."

"I hope it's a week at least," he said briskly. "The morning papers are
here with all the sailings. A sea-voyage will do you a world of good,
and Europe doesn't compare with a trip to the Caribbean."

"Just you two - and one other - are to know," Paula added nervously.

Reifferscheid had gathered up a bundle of papers, and was turning pages
swiftly. "There isn't a reason in the world why everybody should know,"
he remarked lightly, "only you'd better be Lottie or Daisy
Whats-her-name, as the cabin lists of all outgoing ships are available
to any one who looks."

"Tim will be delighted to make everything easy for you," Sister Annie
put in.

Thus mountains dissolved. The soulful accord and the instant sympathy
which sprang to meet her every word, and the valor behind it all, so
solid as to need no explanation - were more than Paula could bear....
Reifferscheid looked up from his papers, finding that she did not speak,
started with embarrassment, and darted to the buffet. A moment later he
had given her a glass of wine and vanished from the room with an armful
of newspapers. The door had no sooner closed upon him than Paula
discovered the outstretched arms of Sister Annie. In the several moments
which followed her heart was healed and soothed through a half-forgotten
luxury....

"The twin-screw liner, _Fruitlands_, - do you really want the first?"
Reifferscheid interrupted himself, when he was permitted to enter later.

"Yes."

"Well, it sails in forty-eight hours, or a little less - Savannah,
Santiago de Cuba, San Juan de Porto Rico - and down to the little
Antilles - Tuesday night at ten o'clock at the foot of Manhattan."

"That will do very well," Paula said, "and I'd like to go straight to
the ship from here - if you'll - - "

"Berth - transportation - trunks - and sub-let your flat, if you like,"
Reifferscheid said as gleefully as a boy invited for a week's hunt.
"Why, Miss Linster, I am the original arrangement committee."

"You have always been wonderful to me," Paula could not help saying,
though it shattered his ease. "This one other who must know is Madame
Nestor. She'll take care of my flat and pack things for me - if you'll
get a message to her in the morning when you go over. I don't expect to
be gone so long that it will be advisable to sub-let."

"Which is emphatically glad tidings," Reifferscheid remarked hastily.

"You'll want all your summer clothes," said Sister Annie. "Tim will see
to your trunks."

"Sometime, I'll make it all plain," Paula tried to say steadily. "It's
just been life to me - this coming here - and knowing that I could come
here - - "

"Miss Linster," Reifferscheid broke in, "I don't want to have to
disappear again. The little things you need done, I'd do for any one in
the office. Please bear in mind that Sister Annie and I would be
hurt - if you didn't let us do them. Why, we belong - in a case like this.
Incidentally, you are doing a bully thing - to take a sail down past that
toy-archipelago. They say you can hear the parakeets screeching out from
the palm-trees on the shore, and each island has a different smell of
spice. It will be great for you - rig you out with a new set of wings.
You must take Hearn along. I've got his volume here on the West Indies.
He'll tell you the color of the water your ship churns. Each day farther
south it's a different blue - - "

So he jockeyed her into laughing, and she slept long and dreamlessly
that night, as she had done once before in the same room.... The second
night following, Reifferscheid put her aboard the _Fruitlands_.

"It's good you thought of taking your cabin under a borrowed name,
Miss - er - Wyndam - Miss Laura Wyndam," he said in a low voice, for the
passengers were moving about. "I'll write you all about it. You have
famous friends. Selma Cross, who is playing at the _Herriot_, wanted to
know where you were. I thought for a minute she was going to throw me
down and take it away from me. Quentin Charter, by the way, is in town
and asked about you. Seemed depressed when I told him you were out of
town, and hadn't sent your address to me yet. I told him and Miss Cross
that mail for you sent to _The States_ would get to you eventually. Both
said they would write - so you'll hear from them on the ship that follows
this." He glanced at her queerly for a second, and added, "Good-by, and
a blessed voyage to you, Tired Lady. Write us how the isles bewitch you,
and I'll send you a package of books every ship or two - - "

"Good-by - my first of friends!"

Two hours afterward Paula took a last turn on deck. The spray swept in
gusts over the _Fruitlands's_ dipping prow. The bare masts, tipped with
lights, swung with a giant sweep from port to starboard and back to port


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 14 of 23)