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Will Levington Comfort.

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cut off from immortality. The woman divined her thoughts.

"Again I beg of you," she said in excitement, "not to let a thought of
pity for him insinuate itself in your brain - not the finest point of it!
Think of yourself, of the Great Good which must sustain you, of the
benefit to your race - think of the women less strong! Fail in this, and
Bellingham will absorb your splendid forces, and let you fall back into
the common as I did - to rise again, ah, so bitterly, so wearily!... But
I cannot imagine you failing, you strong young queen, and the women like
me, the legion of emptied shells he has left behind - we shall canonize
you, Paula, if you shatter the vampire's power."

Thoughts came too fast for speech now. They burned Paula's mind - a
destructive activity, because ineffectual. She wanted to speak of the
shameful experience of the morning, but she could not bring the words to
confession.

"I had almost forgotten," she said lightly at length, "that it is well
for one to eat and drink. Stay, won't you please, and share a bite of
supper with me, Madame Nestor? We'll talk of other things. I am deadly
tired of Bellingham."

A hungry man would have known no repletion from the entire offering
which sufficed for these two, forgotten of appetite. Wafers of dark
bread, a poached egg, pickles, a heart of lettuce and a divided melon,
cake and tea - yet how fully they fared!... They were talking about
children and fairy tales over the teacups, when Paula encountered again
that sinister mental seizure - the occultist's influence creeping back
from her reason to that part of the brain man holds in common with
animals.... The lights of the room dimmed; her companion became
invisible. Bellingham was calling: "Come to me - won't you come and help
me in my excellent labors? Come to me, Paula. We can lift the world
together - you and I. Wonderful are the things for me to show you - you
who are already so wise and so very beautiful. Paula Linster, - come to
me!"

Again and again the words were laid upon her intelligence, until she
heard them only. All the rest was an anterior murmuring, as of wind and
rivers. The words were pressed down upon the surfaces of her brain, like
leaf after leaf of gold-beaters' film - and hammered and hammered
there.... He was in a great gray room, sitting at a desk, but staring at
her, as if there were no walls or streets between - just a little bit of
blackness.... She seemed to know just where to go. She felt the place
for her was there in the great gray room - a wonderful need for her
there.... But a door opened into the room where he sat - a door she had
not seen, for she had not taken her eyes from his face. A woman came in,
a pale woman, a shell of beauty. The huge tousled head at the desk
turned from her to the woman who entered. Paula saw his profile alter
hideously....

Her own bright room filled her eyes again, and the ashen horror on the
countenance of Madame Nestor, who seemed vaguely to see it all.

"I think I should have gone to him," Paula murmured, in the slow, flat
tone of one not yet quite normally conscious.

"There is but one way, you poor distressed child - to build about you a
fortress of purity - which he cannot penetrate - - "

"I think I should have known the car to take - the place to enter," Paula
went on, unheeding, "the elevator entrance - the door of the room - - "

Madame Nestor continued to implore her to pray. Paula shivered finally,
and stared at the other for a few seconds, as if recalling the words the
visitor had spoken, and the past she had lived with Bellingham. Her
terrible rage toward herself spread and covered Madame Nestor. Did not
the latter still dip here, there, and everywhere in the occult and
weird? Might she not have something to do with the projectiles of
Desire?

"I think I'd better be alone now," she said hoarsely. "One does not feel
like invoking the Pure Presence - when one is chosen for such
defilement."




THIRD CHAPTER

CERTAIN DEVELOPING INCIDENTS ARE CAUGHT INTO THE CURRENT OF
NARRATIVE - ALSO A SUPPER WITH REIFFERSCHEID


In the week that followed, Paula's review of Quentin Charter's new book
appeared. As a bit of luxury reading, she again went over "A Damsel Came
to Peter." It stood up true and strong under the second reading - the
test of a real book. The Western writer became a big figure in her mind.
She thought of him as a Soul; with a certain gladness to know that he
was Out There; that he refused to answer the call of New York; that he
had waited until he was an adult to make his name known, and could not
now be cramped and smothered and spoiled. There was a sterilized purity
about parts of his work - an uncompromising thunder against the fleshly
trends of living - to which she could only associate asceticism,
celibacy, and mystic power. He was altogether an abstraction, but she
was glad that he lived - in the West and in her brain.

Also her mind was called to lower explorations of life; moments in which
it seemed as if every tissue within her had been carried from arctic
repressions to the springing verdures of the Indies. A sound, an odor, a
man's step, the voice of a child, would start the spell, especially in
moments of receptivity or aimless pondering. Thoughts formed in a lively
fascinating way, tingling dreamily over her intelligence, dilating her
nostrils with indescribable fragrance, brushing her eyelids
half-closed, - until she suddenly awoke to the fact that this was not
herself, but Bellingham's thirst playing upon her. Beyond words dreadful
then, it was to realize this thing in her brain - to feel it spread
hungrily through her veins and localize in her lips, her breast, and the
hollow of her arms. Bellingham crushed the trained energies of his
thought-force into her consciousness, rendering her helpless. Though he
was afterward banished, certain physical forces which he aroused did not
fall asleep.... Frequently came that malignant efflorescence. Her name
was called; the way shown her. Once when she was summoned to the 'phone,
she knew that it was he, but could not at first resist. Reason came at
the sound of her own hoarse and frightened voice. Again one night,
between nine and ten, when Bellingham was in power, she had reached the
street and was hurrying toward the surface-car in Central Park West. Her
name was jovially called by Reifferscheid. He accompanied her through
the Park and back to her door. He said he thought that she was working
too hard, confessed himself skeptical about her eating enough.

One thought apart from these effects, Paula could not shake from her
mind: Were there human beings with dead or dying souls? Did she pass on
the street men and women in whom the process of soul-starvation was
complete or completing? Could there be human mind-cells detached from
hope, holiness, charity, eternity, and every lovely conception; infected
throughout with earth's descending destructive principle? The thought
terrorized her soul, so that she became almost afraid to glance into the
face of strangers. To think of any man or woman without one hope! This
was insufferable. Compared with this, there is no tragedy, and the
wildest physical suffering is an easy temporal thing. She felt like
crying from the housetops: "Listen to pity; love the good; cultivate a
tender conscience; be clean in body and humble in mind! Nothing matters
but the soul - do not let that die!"

Then she remembered that every master of the bright tools of art had
depicted this message in his own way; every musician heard it among the
splendid harmonies that winged across his heaven; every prophet stripped
himself of all else, save this message, and every mystic was ordered up
to Nineveh to give it sound. Indeed, every great voice out of the
multitude was a cry of the soul. It came to her as never before, that
all uplift is in the words, _Love One Another_. If only the world would
see and hear!

And the world was so immovable - a locked room that resisted her
strength. This was her especial terror - a locked room or a locked
will.... Once when she was a little girl, she released a caged canary
that belonged to a neighbor, and during her punishment, she kept
repeating:

"_It has wings - wings!_"

* * * * *

Liberty, spaces of sky, shadowed running streams, unbroken woods where
the paths were so dim as not to disturb the dream of undiscovered
depths - in the midst of these, Paula had found, as a girl, a startling
kind of happiness. She was tireless in the woods, and strangely slow to
hunger. No gloomy stillness haunted her; the sudden scamper of a
squirrel or rabbit could not shake her nerves, nor even the degraded
spiral of a serpent gliding to cover. Her eyelids narrowed in the midst
of confinements. School tightened her lips; much of it, indeed, put a
look of hopeless toleration in her eyes, but the big, silent woods
quickly healed her mind; in them she found the full life.

At one time, her father essayed to lock her in a closet. Paula told him
she would die if he did, and from the look upon the child's face, he
could not doubt.... He had directly punished her once, and for years
afterward, she could not repress a shudder at his touch. She would serve
him in little things, bring him the choicest fruits and flowers; she
anticipated his wants in the house and knew his habits as a caged thing
learns the movements of its keepers; invariably, she was respectful and
apt - until her will was challenged. Then her mother would weaken and her
father passed on with a smile. "Paula does not permit me to forget that
I have the honor to be her father," he once said.

Reading grew upon her unconsciously. There was a time when she could not
read, another when she could. She did not remember the transition, but
one afternoon, when she was barely five, she sat for hours in the parlor
still as a mole, save for the turning leaves - sat upon a hassock with
Grimm. It was _The Foster Brother_ which pioneered her mind. That
afternoon endured as one of the most exquisite periods of her life. The
pleasure was so intense that she felt she must be doing wrong.

Grimm explained the whole world, in proving the reality of fairies. The
soul of the child had always been awake to influences her associates
missed. Wonderful Grimm cleared many mysteries - the unseen activities of
the woods, the visitors of the dark in her room before she was quite
asleep; the invisible weaving behind all events. Later, books inevitably
brought out the element of attraction between man and woman, but such
were the refinements of her home that nothing occurred to startle her
curiosity. It was left to the friendly woods to reveal a mystery and
certain ultimate meanings.... She was sick with the force of her
divining; the peace and purity of her mind shattered. The accruing
revelations of human origin were all that she could bear. She rebelled
against the manner of coming into the world, a heaven-high rebellion.
Something of pity mingled with her reverence for her mother. For years,
she could not come to a belief that the Most High God had any interest
in a creature of such primal defilement. Queerly enough, it was the
great preparer, Darwin, who helped her at the last. Man having come up
through dreadful centuries from an earth-bent mouth and nostril, to a
pitying heart and a lifted brow - has all the more hope of becoming an
angel....

There was something of the nature of a birthmark in Paula's loathing for
the animal in man and woman. Her mother had been sheltered in girlhood
to such an extent that the mention of a corsage-ribbon would have
offended. Very early, she had married, and the first days of the
relation crushed illusions that were never restored. The birth of Paula
ended a period of inordinate sorrow, which brought all the fine threads
of her life into wear, gave expression to the highest agony of which she
was capable, and ravelled out her emotions one by one. As a mother, she
was rather forceless; the excellent elements of her lineage seemed all
expended in the capacities of the child. Her limitations had not widened
in the dark months, nor had her nature refined. It was as if the heart
of the woman had lost all its color and ardor. The great sweep of
Paula's emotions; her strangeness, her meditative mind and heart-hunger
for freedom; her love for open spaces, still groves and the prophylactic
trends of running water - all expressed, without a doubt, the mysterious
expiration of her mother's finer life. But something beyond heredity,
distances beyond the reach of human mind to explain, was the lofty
quality of the child's soul. Very old it was, and wise; very strange and
very strong.

Paula never failed afterward in a single opportunity to spare younger
girl-friends from the savagery of revelation, as it had come to her. The
bare truth of origin, she made radiant with illimitable human
possibilities.... Her dream beyond words was some time to give the world
a splendid man or woman. Loving, and loved by a strong-souled,
deep-thinking man; theirs the fruit of highest human concord; beautiful
communions in the midst of life's nobilities, and the glory of these on
the brow of their child - such was her dream of womanhood, whitened
through many vicissitudes.

Her mother died when Paula was twenty. The call came in the night. In
the summons was that awful note which tells the end. Her mother was on
the border and crossing swiftly. Paula screamed.

There was no answer, but a faint ruffle on the brow that had been
serene.

"Mother!... Mother!" a last time - then the answer:

"Don't - call - me, - Paula! Oh, it - hurts - so - to be - called - back!"

After that, the dying was a matter of hours and great pain. Had she come
to her in silence, the tired spirit would have lifted easily. So Paula
learned, by terrible experience, the inexpressible value of silence in a
room with death. She had been very close to the mystery. Holding her
mother's hand and praying inaudibly at the last, she had felt the final
wrench to the very core of her being.... Departure, indeed; Paula was
never conscious of her mother's spirit afterward. It is probably futile
to inquire if a child of one's flesh is invariably one's spiritual
offspring.... An ineffectual girl, the mother became a hopeless woman.
In the interval, out of the grinding of her forces, was produced a
fervent heat.... Did blind negative suffering make her receptive to a
gifted child, or did Paula's mother merely give, from her own lovely
flesh, a garment for a spirit-alien from a far and shining country?

* * * * *

Three or four mornings after the Charter critique, Paula brought further
work down-town. Reifferscheid swung about in his chair and stared at her
fully thirty seconds. Then he spoke brusquely, possibly to hide his
embarrassment:

"Take these three books home, but don't bother with them to-day. I want
you back here at four o'clock. You are to go out to supper with me."

The idea was not exactly pleasant. She had seen Reifferscheid only a few
times apart from his desk, where she liked him without reservation. She
had always pictured him as a club-man - a typically successful New
Yorker, with a glitter of satire and irreverent humor about all his
sayings. The thought of a supper with Reifferscheid had a bit of supper
heaviness about it. The club type she preferred to know from a sort of
middle distance....

"Won't you, please?"

His change of manner was effective. All brusqueness was gone. Paula saw
his real earnestness, and the boyish effort of its expression. There was
no reason for her to refuse, and she hesitated no longer. Yet she
wondered why he had asked her, and searched her mind to learn why she
could not see him at leisure, apart from a club-window's leather chair;
at some particular table in a grill or buffet, or enlivening a game of
billiards with his inimitable characterizations. One of the finest and
most effective minds she had ever contacted belonged to this editor. His
desk was the symbol to her of concentrated and full-pressure
strenuousness; in his work was all that was sophisticated and
world-weathered, but she could neither explain nor overcome the
conviction that his excellence was in spite of, rather than the result
of his life outside.... She met him on the stroke of four in the
entrance to _The States_ building, and he led the way at once to South
Ferry, where they took the Staten Island boat. She felt that he was not
at ease in the crowds, but it was a fact, also, that he did not appear
so huge and froggy in the street, as in the crowded office she knew so
well.

"Yes, I live over yonder," he said, drawing two stools to the extreme
forward of the deck. "I supposed you knew. The nearest way out of New
York, this is. Besides, you get full five cents' worth of sea voyage,
and it's really another country across the bay. That's the main
thing - not a better country, but different."

Little was said on the boat. It was enough to breathe the sea and
contemplate the distances. She scarcely noticed which of the
trolley-cars he helped her into at the terminal; but they were out of
town presently, where there were curving country roads, second-growth
hills, and here and there a dim ravine to cool the eye. Then against the
sky she discovered a black ribbon of woods. It was far and big to her
eyes, full of luring mysteries that called to her - her very own
temples.... Turning to Reifferscheid, she found that he had been
regarding her raptly. He coughed and jerked his head the other way,
delightfully embarrassed.

"Guess you like it here," he said after a moment. "I knew you would. I
knew I ought to make you come, somehow. You see, you're a little too
fit - drawn just a trifle too fine. It isn't that you're out of
condition; just the contrary. When one's drawn so fine as you are, one
wears - just from living at joy speed.... We get off here."

"It's incredible that you should have a house all to yourself!"

They were walking on the grass that edged the road. It had taken an hour
and a half to come. Dusk was beginning to crowd into the distances.
Ahead on either side of the road were a few houses with land between.

"Whatever you call it," said Reifferscheid, "it's all in one piece.
There it is yonder - 'A wee cot, a cricket's chirr - Sister Annie and the
glad face of her - - '"

"A little white house under big trees!" Paula exclaimed joyously. "And
what's that big dug-out thing behind?"

Reifferscheid chuckled. "Dug-out is excellent. That's the aquarium and
the lily-lakes. I made those Sierras and clothed their titanic flanks
with forests of sod."

"Don't ask me to speak.... All this is too wonderful for words...." To
think that she had imagined this man-mammoth sitting in a club-window.
In truth, she was somewhat perturbed for wronging him, though delighted
with the whole expedition. Sister Annie was startling, inasmuch as her
face was as fresh and wholesome as a snow-apple, and yet she could not
leave her invalid's chair unassisted. She was younger than
Reifferscheid.

"I'm so glad to have you come, Miss Linster," she said. "Tim was really
set upon it. He speaks of you so frequently that I wanted to meet you
very much. I can't get over to the city often."

"Tim." This was the name of names. Paula had known nothing beyond "T.
Reifferscheid." One after another, little joys like this unfolded.

"It will be too dark after supper," the sister added. "Tim won't be
content until you see his system of ponds. You better go with him now."

Reifferscheid already filled the side-door. Evidently inspection was the
first and only formality demanded of the guest at the cottage. Paula
followed him up a tiny gravel path to the rim of the top pond - a saucer
of cement, eighteen inches deep and seven or eight feet across. It was
filled with pond-weed and nelumbo foliage. Gold fish and stickle-backs
played in the shadowed water.

"It isn't the time of year, you know," he said apologetically. "The
lilies are through blossoming, and in a week or two, I'll have to take
my fishes back to winter-quarters. You see my water supply comes from
Silver Lake. The great main empties here." (Paula followed his finger to
the nozzle of a hose that hung over the rim of cement on the top pond.)
"The stream overflows in Montmorency Falls yonder," - (this, a trickle
down the gravel to the second pond) - "from which, you can hear the roar
of the cataracts into the lower lake, which waters the lands of plenty
all about."

His look of surprise and disappointment at her laughter was
irresistible.

"The saurians are all in the depths, but you can see some of my snails,"
he went on. "You'd be surprised how important my herd of snails is in
the economy of this whole lake country."

He picked up a pebble from the edge of the water, pointing out the green
slime that covered it. "These are spores of a very influential
vegetable, called _algæ_, which spreads like cholera and vegetates
anywhere in water that is not of torrential temperament. Without my
snails, the whole system would be a thick green soup in a month. It's
getting a little dark to see the stickle-back nests. They domesticate
very curiously. Next year, I'll have a fountain.... The second-tank
contains a frail, northern variety of water-hyacinths, some rock bass,
and a turtle or two. Below are the cattails and ferns and mosses. In the
summer, that lower pond is a jungle, but the lilies and lotuses up here
are really choice when in blossom. The overflow of water rejoices the
bugs and posies generally. Annie likes the yard-flowers."

Paula would not have dared to say how enchantingly these toy-lakes and
lily-beds had adjusted, in her mind, to the nature of the big man beside
her, whose good word was valued by every sincere and important literary
worker in the country. Tim Reifferscheid turning out his tremendous
tasks in New York, would never be quite the same to her again, since she
had seen him playing with his hose in his own back yard, and heard him
talk about his snails and lilies, and the land posies that Sister Annie
liked. Down-town, he had always stimulated her, but here with his
toy-engineering and playful watersheds, he was equally bracing and just
as admirable.

Darkness was covering them. "I must see it all again," she said. "I want
to come when the lilies are blossoming. I could watch the fishes and
things - for hours. Really, I will never call it a dug-out again."

She saw him grinning in the dusk.

"Come in to supper," he said. "You see, anything smaller than a Staten
Island back-yard would hardly do for me to play in. Then there's a
stillness about here that I like. It makes your ears ache a little at
first. You wake up in the middle of the night and think you're under the
earth somewhere, or disembodied. Finally it comes to you that there's
nothing to be afraid of except the silence. A man's head gets to need it
after a time. As a matter of fact, there's no place across the bay for a
fat man after working hours."

"Miss Linster," called Sister Annie as they entered.

Paula followed the voice into a speckless spare room.

"Supper will be served in a moment," the other said. "I just wanted to
tell you - Tim will take you back to the city to-night, grateful for the
chance, but do you really have to go? This little room is yours, and you
can go over together in the morning. Then a night in this stillness will
calm you back into a little girl. Tim doesn't know I'm asking you.
Please do just as you want - - "

Paula didn't have the heart to drag the big brother back to town.

"Why," she said laughingly, "I'd much rather stay than not. Think how
good this all is to me! I didn't have an idea when he asked me, other
than a restaurant somewhere in New York."

"I am so glad.... Tim - - "

He tried not to look relieved at the announcement. "Really, I didn't put
Annie up to this, but if you are content to stay, I think it will smooth
you out a bit."

After supper the three sat out in the yard. There was a heavy richness
in the air, a soft sea-wind flavored with wood-fires and finished
fields. Reifferscheid smoked his pipe and did most of the talking.

"I glanced over Bertram Lintell's new book - out to-day," he said. "It
sort of hurts. Two or three months ago, I dropped in on him while he was
doing it.... I have always had a certain interest in Lintell because I
accepted his first story seven or eight years ago, as a magazine
reader.... You may not know that nine-tenths of the unsolicited fiction
material in a magazine's mail is a personal affront to intelligence at
large. Nowhere does a man show the youth of his soul so pitifully as


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 3 of 23)