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seemed lifted apart from all material things, veritable essences of
light, as if they caught and held the full rays of every arc-lamp in the
Hall. Warmth and smiling were not in them; instead, the spirit of
conquest aroused; incarnate preying-power, dead to pity and humor. Here
was Desire toothed, taloned, quick with every subtle art of nature.
Something at war with God, his eyes expressed to her. Failing to master
God, failing to foul the centres of creative purity, this Something
devoured the souls of women. Continually his voice sought to drug her
brain. The fine edge was gone from her perceptions; dulled, she was, to
all but his sayings. There was a chill behind and above her eyes; it
swept backward and seemed to converge in the coarser ganglia at the base
of her brain. Once she had seen a bird hop and flutter lower and lower
among the branches of a lilacbush. On the ground below was a cat with
head twisted upward - its vivid and implacable eyes distending. Paula
could understand now the crippling magnetism the bird felt.... Finally
she could hear only the words of Bellingham, and feel only his power.
What he was saying now to her was truth, the unqualified truth of
more-than-man.

When his eyes turned away, she felt ill, futile, immersed in an
indescribable inner darkness. Her fingers pained cruelly, and she
realized she had been clutching with all her strength the book in her
hand - Quentin Charter's book - which she had begun since morning. She
could not remember a single one of his sentences which had impressed
her, for her brain was tired and ineffectual, as after a prolonged
fever, but she held fast to the bracing effect of an optimistic
philosophy. Then finally out of the helplessness of one pitifully
stricken, a tithe of her old vitality returned. She used it at once,
rose from her seat to leave the Hall. Into the base of her brain again,
as she neared the door, penetrated the protest of his eyes. Had she been
unable to go on, she would have screamed. She felt the eyes of the
women, too; the whole, a ghastly experience. Once outside, she wanted to
run.

Not the least astonishing was the quick obliteration of it all. This was
because her sensations were the result of an influence foreign to her
own nature. In a few moments she felt quite well and normal again, and
was conscious of a tendency to make light of the whole proceeding. She
reached home shortly after ten, angered at herself - inexplicable
perversity - because she had taken Bellingham and the women so
seriously.... That night she finished one of the big books of her
life - Quentin Charter's "A Damsel Came to Peter." When the dawn stole
into the little flat, her eyes were stinging, and her temples felt
stretched apart from the recent hours.




SECOND CHAPTER

PAULA CONTEMPLATES THE WALL OF A HUNDRED WINDOWS, AND THE MYSTERIOUS
MADAME NESTOR CALLS AT THE _ZOROASTER_


Paula had never felt such a consciousness of vitality as the next
forenoon, after three or four hours' sleep. She was just _un_rested
enough to be alive with tension. Her physical and mental capacities
seemed expanded beyond all common bounds, and her thoughts tumbled about
playfully in full arenic light, as athletes awaiting the beginning of
performance. She plunged into a tub of cool water with such delight as
thoroughly to souse her hair, so it became necessary to spend a
half-hour in the sunlight by the open window, combing and fanning, her
mind turning over wonderful things.

If you ever looked across a valley of oaks and maples and elms in the
full morning glow of mid-October, you can divine the glory of red and
brown and gold which was this fallen hair. One must meditate long to
suggest with words the eyes of Paula Linster; perhaps the best her
chronicler can do is to offer a glimpse from time to time. Just now you
are asked for the sake of her eyes to visualize that lustrous valley
once more - only in a dusk that enriches rather than dims. A memorably
beautiful young woman, sitting there by the open window - one of the
elect would have said.

The difficulty in having to do with Linster attractions is to avoid
rising into rhapsody. One thinks of stars and lakes, angels and autumn
lands, because his heart is full as a country-boy's, and high
clean-clipped thinking is choked. Certainly, once having known such a
woman, you will never fall under the spell of Weininger, or any other
scale-eyed genius. There is an inspiring reach to that hard-handled
word, Culture, when it is used about a woman like this. It means so pure
a fineness as neither to require nor to be capable of ostentation; and
yet, a fineness that wears and gives and associates with heroisms. You
think of a lineage that for centuries has not been fouled by brutality
or banality, and has preserved a glowing human warmth, too, to retain
the spirit of woman. When men rise to the real and the worthy, one by
one, each will find his Paula Linster, whom to make happy is happiness;
whose companionship inevitably calls forth his best; whom to be with
constantly means therefore that all within him, not of the best, must
surely die. Clearly when a man finds such a woman, all his roads are
closed, save one - to the Shining Heights! And who can say that his royal
mate will not laughingly unfold wings for him, when they stand together
in the radiant altitude?

She was thinking of Charter's book as she brushed her hair dry. His
sentences played brightly in her mind, fastening themselves to comment
of her own for the review. Deep was the appeal of the rapt, sunlit face,
as she looked away across the rear-court. The colored hall-boy of her
own house might have missed the exquisite lines of lip, eyelid, nostril,
brow, temple and chin, but his head uncovered in her presence, and the
choicest spirit of service sprang within him. In all about her,
to an enlightened vision, was the unconscious repression of
beauty - art-stirring lines of mental and spiritual awakening; that look
of deep inner freshness and health, the mere sight of which disgusts a
man with all he has done to soil and sicken his body. Full and easily
she breathed, as one who relishes sweet air like the taste of pure
water. You could imagine Paula exclaiming with joy at the tonic delight
of a wind from the sea, but not from the steaming aroma of a grill. It
was all an æsthetic attraction - not an over-rounded arc, not a tissue
stretched shiny from uneven plumpness, not a drowsy sag or fold to
suggest the easy content of a mere feeding and breeding animal.

The rear-view of a great granite-ridge of rooming-houses across the
court had often fascinated her with the thought of the mysteries within.
Once she had spoken to Reifferscheid about the splendid story of New
York yet to be written by someone who watched, as she often did, one of
these walls of a hundred windows.

"Yes," he had said. "It's great to be poor. Best blood of New York is in
those back rooms. Everyone needs his poverty-stage of growth - about
seven years will do. It teaches you simplicity. You step into your
neighbor's room and find him washing his stockings with shaving-soap. He
explains that it is better than tooth-powder for textile fabrics. Also,
he intimates that he has done a very serious thing in wetting down these
small garments, having looked in his bag since, and learned that he has
not another pair. However, he wrings them very tight and puts them on
with the remark that this is a certain way to prevent shrinkage."

Even now, a man stood by his window in a sleeveless garment and a ruff
of lather, shaving with a free hand, and a song between strokes. His was
a shining morning face, indeed.... A bare feminine arm leaped quickly
forth from behind a tightened curtain nearby and adjusted a flower-pot
better to the sunlight. From somewhere came a girlish voice in Wagner's
_Walkure Call_. There was not a thought of effort in her carrying that
lofty elaborate music - just a fine heart tuned to harmony on a rare
morning. The effect is not spoiled by the glimpse of a tortured feminine
face igniting a cigarette over a gas-flame that has burned all night.
The vibrations of New York are too powerful for many, but there is more
of health and hope than not.... A good mother cleanses a sauce-pan from
her water-pitcher and showers with the rinsing a young heaven-tree far
below. Then she lifts in a milk-bottle from the stone ledge - and blows
the dust from the top....

Often at night when Paula awakened she could hear the drum of a
typewriter winging across the precipice - one of the night-shift helping
to feed the insatiable maw of print. Had New York called him? Would the
City crush him into a trifler, with artificial emotions, or was this a
Daniel come to interpret her evil dreams?... In a corner-room with two
windows, sat a lame young man before an easel. Almost always he was
there, when there was light. Heaven be with him, Paula thought, if his
picture failed.... And in one of the least and darkest, an old man sat
writing. Day after day, he worked steadily through the hours. To what
god or devil had he sold his soul that he was thus condemned to eternal
scrivening? This was the harrowing part. The back-floors of New York are
not for the old men. Back-rooms for the young men and maidens, still
strong in the flight of time and the fight of competition - back-rooms
for young New York. Nature loses interest in the old. Civilization
should be kinder.

From an unseen somewhere a canary poured out a veritable fire-hose
torrent of melody; and along one of the lower window ledges opposite, an
old gray cat was crouched, a picture of sinister listening. Here was a
dragon, indeed, for small, warm birds.

Directly opposite a curtain was lifted, and a woman, no longer young,
appeared to breathe the morning. Many New Yorkers knew this woman for
her part in children's happiness. There was a whisper that she had once
been an artist's model - and had loved the artist.... There was one woman
long ago - a woman with a box of alabaster - who was forgiven because she
loved much.... The lady across the way loved children now, children of
most unhappy fortunes. To those who came, and there were many, she gave
music lessons; often all day long helping grimy fingers to falter over
the keys. So she awakened poetry and planted truth-seedlings in shaded
little hearts. To the children, though the lady was poor as any - in
spite of her piano and a wall of books - she was Lady Bountiful,
indeed.... Paula smiled. Two windows, strangely enough side by side,
were curtained with stockings out to dry. In one, there were
many - cerise and lavender, pink and baby blue. In the next there were
but two pair, demurely black. What a world of suggestion in the
contrast!... So it was always - her wall of a hundred windows, a changing
panorama of folly, tragedy, toil that would not bow to hopelessness,
vanity, art, sacrifice. Blend them all together above the traffic's
roar - and you have the spirit of young New York.

She put on the brass kettle at length, crossing the room for an
occasional glance into the mirror as she finished her hair.... The
strange numbing power she had felt the night before crept suddenly back
from her eyes now to the base of her brain, striving to cripple her
volition. Bellingham was calling her.... The sunlight was gone. There
was a smell of hot metal in the air, as if some terrific energy had
burned out the vitality. Her heart hurt her from holding her breath so
long. Beyond all expression she was shocked and shamed. The mirror
showed now a spectral Paula with crimson lips and haggard eyes.... An
indescribable fertility stirred within her - almost mystic, like a
whisper from spiritland where little children play, waiting to be born.
She could have fallen in a strange and subtle thrall of redolent
imaginings, except that thought of the source of it all, the
occultist - was as acid in her veins.

She drank tea and crossed the street to the Park for an hour. The
radiance of autumn impressed her rarely; not as the death of a year, but
rather as a glorious pageant of evening, the great energies of nature
all crowned with fruition and preparing for rest. Back in her room, she
wrote the Charter critique, wrote as seldom before. The cool spirit of
the essayist seemed ignited with a lyric ardor. In her momentary power
she conceived a great literary possibility of the future - an effulgent
Burns-vine blossoming forth upon the austere cliff of a Carlyle. She had
finished, and it was dusk when Madame Nestor called.

For several years, at various philosophical gatherings and brotherhoods,
Paula, invariably stimulated by the unusual, had encountered this
remarkable woman. Having very little to say as a rule, Madame Nestor was
a figure for comment and one not readily forgotten because of occasional
memorable utterances. In all the cults of New York, there was likely no
individual quite so out of alignment with ordinary life. Indefinitely,
she would be called fifty. Her forehead was broad, her mouth soft. The
face as a whole was heavy and flour-white. There was a distention of
eyeballs and a pulpy shapelessness to her body which gave the impression
of advanced physical deterioration - that peculiar kind of breaking down,
often noticeable among psychics of long practice. Her absolute
incapacity to keep anything of value was only one characteristic of
interest. Madame Nestor's record of apparently thoughtless generosity
was truly inspiriting.

"I had to see you to-day," she said, sinking down with a sigh of relief.
"I sat behind you last night in Prismatic Hall."

The younger woman recalled with a start - the whisper she had heard. She
leaned forward and inquired quickly: "So it was you, Madame Nestor, who
knew - this Bellingham" - she cleared her throat as she uttered the
name - "as he is now - a quarter of a century ago?"

"Yes. How very strange that you should have heard what I said.... You
will join one of his classes, I presume?"

"I can imagine doing no such thing."

"Dear Paula, do you think it will really turn out - that you are to have
no relation with Bellingham?"

Paula repressed the instant impulse to answer sharply. The fact that she
had already felt Bellingham's power made the other's words a harsh
irritation.

"What relation could I have? He is odious to me."

"I suppose I should have been a cinder long since, dear, if these were
days for burning witches," Madame Nestor said. "When I saw Bellingham's
eyes settle upon you last night - it appeared to me that you are to know
him well. I came here to give you what strength I could - because he is
the chief of devils."

"I'm only one of the working neuters of the human hive," Paula managed
to declare.

The elder woman said a strange thing: "Ah, no. The everlasting feminine
is alive in your every movement. A man like Bellingham would cross the
world for you. Some strong-souled woman sooner or later must encompass
his undoing, and last night it came to me in a way to force my
conviction - that you are the woman."

Paula bent toward her. Darkness covered the centres of her mind and she
was afraid. She could not laugh, for she had already met the magician's
will. "But I loathe him," she whispered. "About the very name when I
first heard it yesterday was an atmosphere which aroused all my
antagonism."

"Even that - he has overcome, but it may help you to endure."

"What does the man want?"

"He wants life - life - floods of young, fine vitality to renew his own
flesh. He wants to live on and on in the body which you have seen. It is
all he has, for his soul is dead - or feeble as a frog's. He fears death,
because he cannot come back. He renews his life from splendid sources of
human magnetism - such as you possess. It is Bellingham's hell to know
that, once out of the flesh, he has not soul enough, if any, to command
a human body again. You see in him an empty thing, which has lived, God
knows how many years, hugging the warmth of his blood - a creature who
knows that to die means the swift disintegration of an evil principle."

"Do you realize, Madame Nestor," Paula asked excitedly, "that you are
talking familiarly of things which may exist in books of ancient wisdom,
but that this is New York - New York packed about us? New York does not
reckon with such things."

"The massed soul of this big city does not reckon with such things,
Paula. That is true, but we are apart. Bellingham is apart. He is wiser
than the massed soul of New York."

"One might believe, even have such a religious conviction, but you speak
of an actual person, the terrible inner mystery of a man, whom we have
seen - a man who frightened me hideously last night - and to-day! You
bring the thing home to a room in a New York apartment ... Can't you see
how hard to adjust, this is? I don't mean to stop or distract you, but
this has become - you are helping to keep it so - such an intimate,
dreadful thing!"

Madame Nestor had been too long immersed in occultism to grasp the
world's judgment of her sayings. "Listen, Paula, this that I tell you is
inherent in every thinking man. You are bewildered by the personal
nature it has assumed.... To every one of us shall come the terrible
moment of choice. Man is not conceived blindly to be driven. Imagine a
man who is become a rapidly evolving mind. On the one side is the
animal-nature, curbed and obedient; on the other, his gathering
soul-force. The mind balances between these two - soul and body. The time
has come for him to choose between a lonely path to the Heights, or the
broad diverging highway, moving with pomp, dazzling with the glare of
vain power, and brooded over by an arrogant materialism which slays the
soul.... The spirit of man says, 'Take the rising road alone.' The old
world-mother sings to him from the swaying throng, 'Come over and be my
king. Look at my arts, my palaces, my valiant young men and my glorious
women. I will put worship in the hearts of the strong - for you! I will
put love in the hearts of the beautiful - for you! Come over and be my
king! Later, when you are old and have drunk deep of power - you may take
the rising road alone.'"

Paula invariably qualified a dogmatic statement as a possibility in her
own mind; but something of this - man reaching a moment of choice - had
always appealed to her as a fundamental verity. Man must conquer not
only his body, but his brain, with its subtle dreams of power, a more
formidable conflict, before the soul assumes supremacy in the mind, and
man's progress to the Uplands becomes a conscious and glorious ascent.

"You put it with wonderful clearness, Madame Nestor," she said.

"I am an old woman who has thought of these things until they are clear.
This is the real battle of man, beside which victory over mere appetites
of the body is but a boyish triumph. The intellect hungers for power and
possession; to hold the many inferior intellects in its own despotic
destiny. Against this glittering substance of attraction is the still
intangible faith of the soul - an awful moment of suspense. God or
Mammon - choose ye!... Listen, Paula, to New York below - treading the
empty mill of commerce - - "

"New York has not chosen yet?"

"No, dear, but hundreds, thousands, are learning in preparation for that
moment of choice - the falseness and futility of material possessions."

"That is a good thought - an incorruptible kind of optimism!" Paula
exclaimed.... "You think this Bellingham has made the evil choice?"

"Yes. Long ago."

"Yet to have arisen to the moment of choosing, you say he must have
conquered the flesh."

"Yes."

"But you depict him - I find him - Desire Incarnate!"

"Exactly, Paula, because he has reverted. _The animal controls his mind,
not the soul._ Bellingham is retracing his way back to chaos, with a
human brain, all lit with magic! Out of the gathered knowledge of the
ages, he has drawn his forces, which to us are mystery. He uses these
secret forces of Nature to prolong his own life - which is all he has.
The mystic cord is severed within him. He is a body, nothing but a
body - hence the passion to endure. Out of the craft of the past, he has
learned - who knows how long ago? - to replenish his own vitality with
that of others. He gives nothing, but drains all. Ah, Paula, this I know
too well. He is kin with those creatures of legend, the _loup-garou_,
the vampire. I tell you he is an insatiable sponge for human magnetism."

"Past all doubt, can't Bellingham turn back?" Paula asked tensely. "With
all his worldly knowledge, and knowing his own doom, can he not turn
back - far back, a lowly-organized soul, but on the human way?"
Hopelessness, anywhere, was a blasting conception to her.

"No. I tell you he is a living coffin. There is nothing in him to
energize a pure motive. He might give a fortune to the poor, but it
would be for his own gain. He could not suffer for the poor, or love
them. Dead within, he is detached from the great centres of virtue and
purity - from all that carries the race forward, and will save us at the
last. You see his frightful dependence upon this temporal physical
instrument, since all the records of the past and the unwritten pages of
the future are wiped out? Isn't it a sheer black horror, Paula, - to know
that from the great tide of hopeful humanity, one is set apart; to know
that the amazing force which has carried one from a cell in the ooze to
thinking manhood must end with this red frightened heart; to be forced,
for the continuance of life, to feed upon the strength of one woman
after another - always fairer and finer - - " The look of hatred in the
speaker's face had become a banner of havoc.

"Can he not stop that kind of devouring?" Paula exclaimed. "Would there
not be hope - if he battled with that - put _that_ vampirism behind?"

Madame Nestor regarded the other steadily, until all distortion of
feature had given away to her accustomed mildness. Then she uttered an
unforgettable question:

"_Can a tiger eat grains?_"

Vast ranges of terrible understanding were suggested.

"It is my duty, if I ever had a duty," the caller went on, "to make you
know Bellingham as I know him. You must have no pity."

"Is there really no fact by which his age can be determined?"

"None that I know. Twenty-five years ago, when he left me hideously wise
and pitifully drained, he looked as he does now."

"But why, oh why, do you always think of me with Bellingham?" Paula
asked hopelessly.

"I watched his face when he regarded you last night. I knew the look."

"What is to prevent me from never seeing him? He cannot force himself
upon me here - in the flesh.... Certainly you would not tell him where I
am, where I go - if I begged you not to!"

Madame Nestor shuddered. "No, Paula. It is because you are frightened
and tormented that such a thought comes. It is I who am showing you the
real Bellingham. He menaces my race. None but big-souled women are
useful to him now. He is drawn to them, as one hungry, as one always
hungry. It is he first who is drawn. Then they begin to feel and respond
to his occult attraction. The time might have come when you would
worship him - had I not warned you. I did. I was quite his - until I
learned. A woman knows no laws in the midst of an attraction like this.
No other man suffices - - "

"But why - why do you prepare _me_? Do you think I cannot resist?" Paula
asked furiously. She felt the bonds about her already. The blood rose
hot and rebellious at the thought of being bound. It was the old hideous
fear of a locked room - the shut-in horror which meant suffocation.

"If I thought you could not resist, Paula," Madame Nestor said, "I
should advise you to flee to the remotest country - this moment. I should
implore you never to allow from your side your best and strongest
friend. But I have studied your brain, your strength, your heart. I love
you for the thought that has come to me - that it is you, Paula Linster,
who is destined to free the race from this destroyer."

Often in the last half-hour had come a great inward revolt against the
trend of her caller's words. It passed through Paula again, yet she
inquired how she could thus be the means.

"By resisting him. Bellingham once told me - trust him, this was after I
was fully his - that if I had matched his force with a psychic resistance
equally as strong - it would mortally have weakened him. So if he seeks
to subvert your will and fails, this great one-pointed power of his,
developed who knows how long - will turn and rend itself. This is an
occult law."

Paula could understand this - the wild beast of physical desire rending
itself at the last - but not the conception of hopelessness - Bellingham


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 2 of 23)