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Will Levington Comfort.

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Linster had suffered herself to listen to those old horrors, and had
permitted him to be called to the bar before Selma Cross. No matter how
he handled this, it held a fundamental lesion in the Skylark-fineness.

Charter whipped his wastrel tendencies one by one until on the fifth day
his resistance hardened, and the brute within him was crippled from
beating against it. His letter to Paula Linster was a triumph of
repression. Probably one out of six of the thoughts that came to him
were given expression. He felt that he had made of Selma Cross an
implacable enemy, and was pursued by the haunting dread (if, indeed, the
conversation had not been overheard), that she might think better about
"squaring" him. It was on this fifth day that for a moment the mystic
attraction returned to his consciousness, and he heard the old singing.
This was the first reward for a chastened spirit. Again and
again - though never consciously to be lured or forced - the vision,
unhurt, undiminished, returned for just an instant with a veiled, but
exquisite refinement.

The newspaper account of Pelée's overflowing wrath immediately
materialized all his vague thought of voyaging. His quest had vanished
from New York. Had Selma Cross been true to her word; at least, had any
part of their interview been empowered to restore something of the faith
of Paula Linster - there had been ample time for him to hear it. He was
afraid that, in itself, his old intimacy with the actress had been
enough to startle the Skylark into uttermost flight. Reifferscheid's
frigidity had required only one test to become a deep trouble. His hint
that Miss Linster would be away two or three months rendered New York
and a return to his own home equally impossible. Father Fontanel held a
bright, substantial warmth for his isolated spirit - and the _Panther_
was among the imminent sailings.

He bought his berth and passage on the morning of the sailing date, and
there was a matinée of _The Thing_ in the meantime. Charter did not
notify Selma Cross of his coming, but he liked the play unreservedly,
and was amazed by the perfection of her work. He wrote her a line to
this effect; and also a note of congratulation and greeting to Stephen
Cabot.... It was not without a pang that he looked back at Manhattan
from The Narrows that night.

For several mornings he had studied the gaunt, striding figure of a
fellow-passenger, who appeared to be religious in the matter of his
constitutional; or, as a sailor softly remarked as he glanced up at
Charter from his holy-stoning, "He seems to feel the need av walkin' off
sivin or eight divils before answerin' the breakfast-gong...." In
behalf of this stranger also, Charter happened to overhear the
chief-steward encouraging one of the waiters to extra-diligence in
service, Queerly, in the steward's mind, the interest seemed of a deeper
sort than even an unusual fee could exact - as if he recognized in the
stranger a man exalted in some mysterious masonry. And Charter noticed
that the haggard giant enforced a sort of willing slavery throughout the
ship - from the hands, but through the heads. This strange potentiality
was decidedly interesting; as was the figure in itself, which seemed
possessed of the strength of vikings, in spite of an impression,
inevitable to Charter when he drew near - of one enduring a sort of
Promethean dissolution. Charter reflected upon the man's eyes, which had
the startling look of having penetrated beyond the formality of
Death - into shadows where inquisition-hells were limned. It was not
until he heard the steward address the other as "Doctor Bellingham,"
that the fanciful attraction weakened. His recollection crowded
instantly with newspaper paragraphs regarding the Bellingham activities.
Charter was rather normal in his masculine hatred for hypnotic artists
and itinerary confessionals for women.

The _Panther_ ran into a gale in that storm-crucible off Hatteras.
Charter smiled at the thought, as the striding Bellingham passed, doing
his mileage on the rocking deck, that the roar of the wind in the
funnels aloft was fierce energy in the draughts of this human furnace.
While his own interest waned, the other, curiously enough, began to
respond to his unspoken overtures of a few days before. The _Panther_
was a day out from San Juan, steaming past the far-flung coral shoals
off Santo Domingo, when Charter was beckoned forward where Bellingham
sat.

"This soft air would call a Saint Francis down from his spiritual
meditations," the Doctor observed.

The voice put Charter on edge, and the manner affected him with inward
humor. It was as if the other thought, "Why, there's that pleasant-faced
young man again. Perhaps it would be just as well to speak with him." As
he drew up his chair, however, Charter was conscious of an abrupt change
in his mental attitude - an inclination to combat, verbally to rush in,
seize and destroy every false utterance. His initial idea was to compel
this man who spoke so glibly of meditations to explain what the word
meant to him. This tense, nervous impatience to disqualify all the other
might say became dominant enough to be reckoned with, but when Charter
began to repress his irritation, a surprising inner resistance was
encountered. His sensation was that of one being demagnetized. Thoughts
and words came quickly with the outgoing energy of the current.
Altogether he was extraordinarily affected.

"These Islands are not particularly adapted for one who pursues the
austerities," he replied.

"Yet where can you find such temperamental happiness?" Bellingham
inquired, plainly testing the other. His manner of speech was flippant,
as if it were quite the same to him if his acquaintance preferred
another subject.

"Anywhere among the less-evolved nations, when the people are warm and
fed."

The Doctor smiled. "You will soon see the long, lithe coppery bodies of
the Islanders, as they plunge into the sea from the Antillean cliffs.
You will hear the soft laughter of the women, and then you will forget
to deny their perfection." Sensuality exhaled from the utterance.

"You speak of the few brief zenith years which lie at the end of youth,"
Charter said. "This sort of perfection exists anywhere. In the Antilles
it certainly is not because the natives have learned how to preserve
life."

"That's just the point," said Bellingham, "Add to their natural gifts of
beautiful young bodies - the knowledge of preservation."

"Take a poor, unread Island boy and inform him how to live forever,"
Charter observed. "Of course, he'll grasp the process instantly. But
wouldn't it be rather severe on the other boys and girls, if the usual
formula of perpetuating self is used? I mean, would he not have to
restore his vitality from the others?"

Bellingham stared at him. Charter faced it out, but not without cost,
for the livid countenance before him grew more and more ghastly and
tenuous, until it had the effect of becoming altogether unsubstantial;
and out of this wraith shone the eyes of the serpent. The clash of wills
was quickly passed.

"You have encountered a different fountain of youth from mine," the
Doctor said gently.

"Rather I have encountered a disgust for any serious consideration of
immortality in the body."

"Interesting, but our good Saint Paul says that those who are in the
body when the last call sounds, will be caught up - without disturbing
the sleep of the dead."

"It would be rather hard on such bodies - if the chariots were of fire,"
Charter suggested.

He was inwardly groping for his poise. He could think well enough, but
it disturbed him to feel the need to avoid the other's eyes. He liked
the shaping of the conversation and knew that Bellingham felt himself
unknown. Charter realized, too, that he would strike fire if he hammered
long enough, but there was malevolence in the swift expenditure of
energy demanded.

Bellingham smiled again. "Then you think it is inevitable that the end
of man is - the clouds?"

"The aspiration of the spirit, I should say, is to be relieved of feet
of clay.... Immortality in the body - that's an unbreakable paradox to
me. I'm laminated, Harveyized against anything except making a fine
tentative instrument of the body."

"You think, then, that the spirit grows as the body wastes?"

"Orientals have encountered starvation with astonishing results to
philosophy," Charter remarked. "But I was thinking only of a body firmly
helmed by a clean mind. The best I have within me declares that the
fleshly wrapping becomes at the end but a cumbering cerement; that
through life, it is a spirit-vault. When I pamper the body, following
its fitful and imperious appetites, I surely stiffen the seals of the
vault. In my hours in which the senses are dominant the spirit shrinks
in abhorrence; just as it thrills, warms and expands in rarer moments of
nobility."

"Then the old martyrs and saints who macerated themselves wove great
folds of spirit?"

The inconsequential manner of the question urged Charter to greater
effort to detach, if possible, for a moment at least, the other's Ego.
"In ideal," he went on, "I should be as careless of food as Thoreau, as
careless of physical pain as Suso. As for the reproductive devil
incarnated in man - it, and all its ramifications, since the most
delicate and delightful of these so often betray - I should encase in the
coldest steel of repression - - "

"You say, in ideal," Bellingham ventured quietly. "... But are not these
great forces splendid fuel for the mind? Prodigious mental workers have
said so."

"A common view," said Charter, who regarded the remark as
characteristic. "Certain mental workers are fond of expressing this. You
hear it everywhere with a sort of 'Eureka.' Strength of the loins is but
a coarse inflammation to the mind. A man may use such excess strength,
earned by continence, in the production of exotics, feverish lyrics, and
in depicting summer passions, but the truth is, that so long as that
force is not censored, shriven and sterilized - it is the same jungle
pestilence, and will color the mind with impurity. It is much better
where it belongs - than in the mind."

"You do not believe in the wild torrents, the forked lightnings, and the
shocking thunders of the poets?"

"I like the calm, conquering voices of the prophets better....
Immortality of the body?... There can be no immortality in a substance
which earth attracts. We have vast and violent lessons to learn in the
flesh; lessons which can be learned only in the flesh, because it is a
matrix for the integration of spirit. It appears to me that, in due
time, man reaches a period when he balances in the attractions - between
the weight of the body and the lifting of the soul. This is the result
of a slow, refining process that has endured through all time.
Reincarnation is the best theory I know for the process. That there is
an upward tendency driving the universe, seems to be the only cause and
justification for Creating. Devolution cannot be at the centre of such a
system.... The body becomes more and more a spotless garment for the
soul; soul-light more and more electrifies it; the elimination of
carnality in thought may even render the body delicate and transparent,
but it is a matrix still, and falls away - when one's full-formed wings
no longer need the weight of a thorax - - "

"What an expression!" Bellingham observed abruptly. He had been staring
away toward a low, cloudy film of land in the south. One would have
thought that he had heard only the sentence which aroused his comment.
Charter was filling with violence. The man's vanity was chained to him
like a corpse. This experience of pouring out energy to no purpose
aroused in Charter all the forces which had combined to force the public
to his work. The thought came that Bellingham was so accustomed to
direct the speech and thought of others, mainly women, that he had lost
the listening faculty.

"Let me express it, then," Charter declared with his stoutest
repression, "that this beautiful surviving element, having finished with
the flesh, knows only the attraction of Light. It is the perfect flower
of ages of earth-culture, exquisite and inimitable from the weathering
centuries, and is radiant for a higher destiny than a cooling planet's
crust - - "

"My dear young man, you speak very clearly, prettily, and not without
force, I may say, - a purely Platonistic gospel."

Charter's mental current was turned off for a second. True or false, the
remark was eminently effective. A great man might have said it, or a
dilettante.

"In which case, I have a firm foundation."

"But I am essentially of the moderns," said Bellingham.

"Perhaps I should have known that from your first remark - about the
brown bodies of the Islanders, rejoicing in the sunlight and bathing in
these jewelled seas."

"Ah, yes - - " The softening of Bellingham's mouth, as he recalled his
own words, injected fresh stimulant into the animus of the other. As
Charter feared the eyes, so he had come to loathe the mouth, though he
was not pleased with the intensity of his feelings.

"Do you honestly believe that - that which feels the attraction of earth,
and becomes a part of earth after death - is the stuff of immortality?"
he demanded.

"By marvellous processes of prolongation and refinement - and barring
accident - yes."

"Processes which these poor Islanders could understand?"

"We are moving in a circle," Bellingham said hastily.

For the first moment, Charter felt the whip-hand over his own faculties.

"I've noted the great, modern tendency to preach _body_," he said,
inhaling a big breath of the fragrant air, "to make a religion of bodily
health - to look for elemental truth in alimentary canals; to mix prayer
with carnal subterfuge and heaven with health resorts. Better Phallicism
bare-faced.... I read a tract recently written by one of these
body-worshippers - the smug, black devil. It made me feel just as I did
when I found a doctor book in the attic once, at the age of ten....
Whatever I may be, have done, may feel, dream or think below the
diaphragm - hasn't anything to do with my religion. I believe in health,
as in a good horse or a good typewriter, but my body's health is not
going to rule my day."

"You are young - to have become chilled by such polar blasts," Bellingham
said uneasily, for he now found the other's eyes but without result.

"I came into the world with a full quiver of red passions," Charter said
wearily, yet strangely glad. "The quiver is not empty. I do not say that
I wish it were, but I have this to declare: I do not relish being told
how to play with the barbs; how to polish and point and delight in them;
how to put them back more deadly poisoned. I think there are big
blankets of mercy for a natural voluptuary - for the things done when
tissues are aflame - but for the man who deliberately studies to recreate
them without cost, and tells others of his experiments - frankly, I
believe in hell for such men-maggots. Oblivion is too sweet. The essence
of my hatred for these Bodyists is because of the poison they infuse
into the minds of youths and maidens, whose character-skeletons are
still rubbery.... But let such teachers purr, wriggle, and dilate - for
they're going back right speedily to the vipers!"

Bellingham's eyes had been lost in the South. He turned, arose, and
after a pause said lightly, "Your talk is strong meat, young man....
I - I suffered a serious accident some months ago and cannot stay too
long in one place. We shall talk again. How far do you go with the
_Panther_?"

"Saint Pierre."

Charter already felt the first pangs of reaction. His vehemence, the
burn of temper for himself, in that he had allowed the other's
personality to prey upon him, and the unwonted aggressiveness of his
talk - all assumed an evil aspect now as he perceived the occultist's
ghastly face. In rising, Bellingham seemed to have stirred within
himself centres of unutterable torture. His look suggested one who has
been drilled in dreadful arcanums of pain, unapproached by ordinary men.

"I think I must have been pent a long time," Charter said in his
trouble. "Perhaps, I'm a little afraid of myself and was rehearsing a
warning for the strength of my own bridle-arm - since we're swinging down
into these Isles of Seduction."

"You'll find a more comfortable coolness with the years, I think, and
cease to abhor your bounding physical vitality. Remember, 'Jesus came
eating and drinking - - '"

Charter started under the touch of the old iron. "But 'wisdom is
justified of all her children,'" he responded quickly.

They were at the door of Bellingham's cabin, which was forward on the
promenade. The doctor laughed harshly as he turned the key. "I see you
have your Scriptures, too," he said. "We must talk again."

"How far do you go with the _Panther_?" Charter asked, drawing away. His
eyes had filled for a second, as the door swung open, with the
photograph of a strangely charming young woman within the cabin.

"I have not decided - possibly on to South America."

Charter felt as he walked alone that he had shown his youth, even a
pertness of youth. He recalled that he had done almost all the talking;
that he had felt the combativeness of a boy who scents a rival from
another school - quite ridiculous. Moreover, he was weary, as if one of
his furious seasons of work had just ended - that rare and excellent kind
of work which gathers about itself an elemental force to drive the mind
as with fire until the course is run.... He did not encounter Bellingham
during the rest of the voyage.

Long before dawn the _Panther_ gained the harbor before Saint Pierre,
and Charter awoke to the consciousness of a disorder in the air. Alone
on deck, while the night was being driven back over the rising land, he
was delighted to pick out the writhing letters of gold, "_Saragossa_,"
through the smoky gray, a few furlongs to the south. Peter Stock, an
acquaintance from a former call at Saint Pierre, had become a solid and
fruitful memory....

Father Fontanel was found early, where the suffering was greatest in the
city. The old eyes lit with gladness as he caught Charter with both
hands, and murmured something as his gaze sank into the eyes of the
younger man - something which Charter did not exactly understand, about
wolves being slain.

"What have you been doing with Old Man Pelée, Father? We heard him
groaning in the night, and the town is fetid with his sickness."

"Ah, my son, I am afraid!"

Had all the seismologists of civilization gathered in Saint Pierre, and
uttered a verdict that the volcano was an imminent menace, Charter would
not have turned a more serious look at Pelée than he did that moment....
At the _Palms_, he found Peter Stock and a joyous welcome. They arranged
for luncheon together, and the Capitalist hurried down into the city....
That proved a memorable luncheon, since Peter Stock at the last moment
persuaded Miss Wyndam to join them.

Charter was disturbed with the thought that he had seen her before; and
amazed that he could have forgotten where. He could only put it far back
among the phantasmagoria of drinking days. Certainly the sane, restored
Charter had never met this woman and forgotten. His veins were dilated
as by a miraculous wine.

"The name is new to me, but I seem to have seen you somewhere, Miss
Wyndam," he declared.

"That's the second time you've said that, young man," Mr. Stock
remarked. "Don't your sentences register?"

"It's always bewildering - I know how Mr. Charter feels," Paula managed
to say. "I'm quite sure we were never introduced, though I know Mr.
Charter's work."

"That's good of you, indeed," he said. "I don't mean - to know my
work - but to help me out with Friend Stock. It is bewildering that I
have forgotten. I feel like a boy in an enchanted forest. Pelée has been
working wonders all day."

"I can't follow you," the Capitalist sighed. "Your sentences are
puckered."

They hardly heard him. Paula, holding fast with all her strength to the
part she had planned to play, sensed Charter's blind emotion, distinct
from her own series of shocks. To her it was that furious moment of
adjustment, when a man and his ideal meet for the first time in a
woman's heart. As for this heart, she feared they would hear its
beating. Instantly, she knew that he had not come to Saint Pierre
expecting to find her; knew that she was flooding into his
subconsciousness - that he felt _worlds_ and could not understand. She
found the boy in his eyes - the boy of his old picture - and the deep
lines and the white skin of a man who has lived clean, and the brow of a
man who has thought many clean things. He was thinking of the Skylark,
and "Wyndam" disturbed him.... Always when he hesitated in his speech,
the right word sprang to her lips to help him. She caught the very
processes of his thinking; his remoteness from the thought of food, was
her own.... For hours, since she had heard his voice below, Paula had
paced the floor of her room, planning to keep her secret long. She would
play and watch his struggle to remember the Skylark; she would weigh the
forces of the conflict, stimulate it; study him among men, in the
presence of suffering, and in the dread of the mountain. All this she
had planned, but now her whole heart went out to the boy in his
eyes - the boy that smiled. All the doubts which at best she had hoped
for the coming days to banish were erased in a moment; she even believed
in its fullness the letter from Selma Cross - because he was embarrassed,
brimming with emotions he could not understand, quite as the boy of her
dreams would be. She lived full-length in his silences, hardly dared to
look at him now, for she felt his constant gaze. She knew that she was
colorless, but that her eyes were filled with light.... Presently she
realized that they were talking of Father Fontanel.

"He's a good old man," said Peter Stock. "He works day and night - and
refuses to call it work. Just think of having a servant with a God like
Father Fontanel's to make work easy!"

"He's even a little bit sorry for Pelée," Charter said. "I'm never quite
the same in Saint Pierre. Many times up in the States, I ask myself, if
it isn't largely in my mind about Father Fontanel's spirit and his
effect upon me. It isn't. Stronger than ever it came to me this morning.
You know him?" He turned the last to the woman.

"Yes, I found him down on the water-front - - "

"And brought him to me," said Mr. Stock, and added: "You know what
bothered me about priests so long - they seem to have it all settled
between them that theirs is the only true Air-line Limited to God.
Fontanel's down in the lowlands, where life is pent and cruel, where
there are weak sisters and little ones who have to be helped over hard
ways - that's what gets Peter Stock."

"You don't know how good that is to hear," Paula said softly. "I have
thought it, too, about some men in holy orders - black figures moving
along in a 'grim, unfraternal' Indian file, with their eyes so occupied
in keeping their feet from breaking fresh ground - that it seems they
must sometimes lose the Summit."

Charter looked from one to the other. Peter Stock regarded their plates.
Paula made a quick pretense of eating, and was grateful when Charter
broke the silence: "Yes, Father Fontanel has found one of the trails to
the Top - one of the happy ones. Sometimes I think there are just as many
trails, as an ant could find to the top of an apple. Wayfarers go
a-singing on Father Fontanel's trail - eyes warm with soft skies and
untellable dreams. It's a way of fineness and loving-kindness - - "

Mr. Stock had risen from the table and moved to a window which faced the
North. All was vague about them. Paula had been carried by Charter's
voice toward far-shining mountains.... In the silence, she met the
strange, steady eyes of _the boy_, and looked away to find that the room
had darkened.

"It is getting dark," he said.

She would have said it, if he hadn't.

The mountain rumbled.

"The North is a mass of swirling grays and blacks," Peter Stock
announced from the window. "It isn't a thunderstorm - - "

A sharp detonation cleaved the darkening air, and from the rear of the
house the answer issued - quavering cries of children, sharp calling of
mothers, and the sullen undertone of men. A subdued drumming came from
the North now, completing the tossing currents of sound about the house.
The dismal bellowing of cattle and the stamping of ponies was heard from
the barns. All this was wiped out by a series of terrific crashes, and


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 17 of 23)