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Will Levington Comfort.

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mind, but that I just suit it. Selma Cross is to be carved in light over
a theatre-entrance, twenty seconds from Broadway - next April. It will be
at the _Herriot_ - Vhruebert's theatre. We run through Hartford,
Springfield, Rochester and that string of second cities earlier in the
Spring."

Paula rose and gave both her hands.

"Oh, I'm so glad for you," she said. "I know something about how you
have worked for this - - "

"Yes, and the play is _The Thing_. I am an ugly slaving drudge, but have
all the emotions that the sweet _ingenue_ of the piece should have, and
the audience watches me deliver. Yes, I've waited long for this, and yet
I'm not so glad as I thought I should be. I've been pretty sure of it
for the last year or two. I said I was celebrating for two things - - "

"Pray, what is the other?"

"I forget that it might not interest you - though it certainly does me,"
Selma Cross said with a queer, low laugh.... "He wasn't ugly about it,
but he has been exacting - ugh! The fact is, I have earned the privilege
at last of sleeping in my own respectable apartment."

Paula couldn't help shivering a bit. "You mean you have left your - - "

"Oh, he wasn't my husband.... It's such a luxury to pay for your own
things - for your own house and clothes and dinners - to earn a dollar for
every need and one to put away.... You didn't think that I could get my
name above the name of a play - without an angel?"

"I didn't know," Paula said, "I saw you with him often. It didn't
exactly occur to me that he was your husband, because he didn't come
here. But do you mean that now when you don't need him any longer - you
told him to go away?"

"Just that - except it isn't at all as it looks. You wouldn't pity old
man Villiers. Living God, that's humorous - after what I have given.
Don't look for wings on theatrical angels, dear."

It was plain that the woman was utterly tired. She regarded Paula with a
queer expression of embarrassment, and there was a look of harsh
self-repression under the now-drooped eyelids.

"I don't apologize," she went on hastily. "What I have done, I would do
again - only earlier in the game, but you're the sort of woman I don't
like to have look at me that - I mean look down upon me. I haven't many
friends. I think I must be half wild, but you make the grade that I
have - and you pay the price.... You've always looked attractive to
me - so easy and finished and out of the ruck."

There was a real warming sincerity in the words. Paula divined on the
instant that she could forever check an intimacy - by a word which would
betray the depth of her abhorrence for such a concession to ambition,
and for the life which seems to demand it. Selma Cross was sick for a
friend, sick from containing herself. On this night of achievement there
was something pitiful in the need of her heart.

"New York has turned rather too many pages of life before my eyes,
Selma, for me to feel far above any one whose struggles I have not
endured."

The other leaned forward eagerly, "I liked you from the first moment,
Paula," she said. "You were so rounded - it seemed to me. I'm all
streaky, all one-sided. You're bred. I'm cattle.... Some time I'll tell
you how it all began. I said I would be the greatest living
tragedienne - hurled this at a lot of cat-minds down in Kentucky fifteen
years ago. Of course, I shall. It does not mean so much to me as I
thought, and it may be a bauble to you, but I wanted it. Its
far-awayness doesn't torture me as it once did, but one pays a ghastly
price. Yes, it's a climb, dear. You must have bone and blood and
brain - a sort of brain - and you should have a cheer from below; but I
didn't. I wonder if there ever was a fight that can match mine? If so,
it would not be a good tale for children or grown-ups with delicate
nerves. Little women always hated me. I remember, one restaurant cashier
on Eighth Avenue told me I was too unsightly to be a waitress. I have
done kitchen pot-boilers and scrubbed tenement-stairs. Then, because I
repeated parts of plays in those horrid halls - they said I was crazy....
Why, I have felt a perfect lust for suicide - felt my breast ache for a
cool knife and my hand rise gladly. Once I played a freak part - that was
my greater degradation - debased my soul by making my body look worse
than it is. I went down to hell for that - and was forgiven. I have been
so homesick, Paula, that I could have eaten the dirt in the road of that
little Kentucky town.... Yes, I pressed against the steel until
something broke - it was the steel, not me. Oh, I could tell you
much!..."

She paused but a moment.

"The thing so dreadful to overcome was that I have a body like a great
Dane. It would not have hurt a writer, a painter, even a singer, so
much, but we of the drama are so dependent upon the shape of our bodies.
Then, my face is like a dog or a horse or a cat - all these I have been
likened to. Then I was slow to learn repression. This is a part of
culture, I guess - breeding. Mine is a lineage of Kentucky poor white
trash, who knows, but a speck of 'nigger'? I don't care now, only it
gave me a temper of seven devils, if it was so. These are some of the
things I have contended with. I would go to a manager and he would laugh
me along, trying to get rid of me gracefully, thinking that some of his
friends were playing a practical joke on him. Vhruebert thought that at
first. Vhruebert calls me _The Thing_ now. I could have done better had
I been a cripple; there are parts for a cripple. And you watch, Paula,
next January when I burn up things here, they'll say my success is
largely due to my figure and face!"

As she looked and listened, Paula saw great meanings in the broad big
countenance, a sort of ruffian strength to carry this perfecting
instrument of emotion. The great body was needed to support such
talents, handicapped by the lack of beauty. Selma Cross fascinated her.
Paula's heart went out to the great crude creature she had been - in pity
for this woman of furious history. The processes by which her brain and
flesh had been refined would have slain the body and mind of an ordinary
human. It came to Paula that here was one of Mother Nature's most
enthralling experiments - the evolution of an effective instrument from
the coarsest and vaguest heredity.

"They are all brainless but Vhruebert. You see, unless one is a beauty,
you can't get the support of a big manager's name. I mean without
money - there are managers who will lend their name to your stardom, if
you take the financial risk. Otherwise, you've got to attract them as a
possible conquest. All men are like that. If you interest them
sexually - they will hear what you have to say - - "

"Isn't that a reckless talk?" Paula asked, pale from the repulsiveness
of the thought. "You say it without a single qualification - - "

Selma Cross stared at her vacantly for a few seconds, then laughed
softly. "You don't actually believe - to the contrary?"

"Let's pass it by. I should have to be changed - to believe that!"

"I hope the time will never come when you need something terribly from a
strange man - one upon whom you have no hold but - yourself.... Ah, but
you - the brighter sort would give you what you asked. You - - "

"Please don't go on!" Paula whispered. "The other part is so
interesting."

Selma Cross seemed to stir restlessly in her loose, softly-scented
garments. "I suppose I'm too rough for you. In ninety-nine women out of
a hundred, I'd say your protest was a cheap affectation, but it isn't so
with you...."

"It's your set, smothery pessimism that hurts so, Selma," Paula declared
intensely. "It hurts me most because you seem to have it so locked and
immovable inside.... You have been so big and wonderful to win against
tremendous obstacles - not against ugliness - I can't grant that. You
startled me, when I saw you first. I think women have held you apart
because you were uncommon. You show a strange power in your movements
and expression. It's not ugliness - - "

"That's mighty rare of you. I haven't had the pleasure of being defied
like that before. But you are not like other people - not like other
women."

"You will meet many real men and women - wiser and kinder than I am. I
think your pessimism cannot endure - when you look for the good in
people - - "

"The kind I have known would not let me. They're just as hateful now - I
mean the stuffy dolls of the stage - just as hateful, calling me 'dear'
and 'love' and saying, 'How tremendous you are, Selma Cross!....'
Listen, it is only a little while ago that the same women used to ask me
to walk on Broadway with them - to use me as a foil for their baby faces!
Oh, women are horrible - dusty shavings inside - and men are of the same
family."

"You poor, dear unfortunate - not to know the really wonderful kind! You
are worn to the bone from winning your victory, but when you're rested,
you'll be able to see the beautiful - clearly."

"One only knows as far as one can see."

This sentence was a shock to Paula's intelligence. It was spoken without
consciousness of the meaning which drove so deep into the other's mind.
It suggested a mind dependent altogether upon physical eyes. Paula
refused to believe that this was the key to the whole matter.

"They have been so cruel to me - those female things which bloom a year,"
Selma Cross continued. "Flesh-flowers! They harried me to martyrdom. I
had to hate them, because I was forced to be one with them - I, a big
savage, dreaming unutterable things. It's all so close yet, I haven't
come to pity them.... Maybe you can tell me what good they are - what
they mean in the world - the shallow, brainless things who make the stage
full! They are in factories, too, everywhere - daughters of the coolies
and peasants of Europe - only worse over here because their fathers have
lost their low fixed place in society, and are all mixed in their dim,
brute minds. They have no one to rule them. You will see a family of
dirty, frightened, low-minded children - the eldest, say a girl of
fifteen. A dog or a cat with a good home is rich beside them. Take this
eldest girl of a brood - with all the filth of foreign New York in and
about her. She is fifteen and ready for the streets. It is the year of
her miracle. I've seen it a score of times. You miss her a few months
and she appears again at work somewhere - her face decently clean, her
eyes clear, a bit of bright ribbon and a gown wrung somewhere from the
beds of torture. It is her brief bloom - so horrid to look at when you
know what it means. All the fifteen years of squalor, evil, and
low-mindedness for this one year - a bloom-girl out of the dirt! And the
next, she has fallen back, unwashed, high-voiced, hardening,
stiffening, - a babe at her breast, dull hell in her heart. All her
living before and to come - for that one bloom year. Maybe you can tell
me what the big purpose of it all is. Earth uses them quite as
ruthlessly as any weed or flower - gives them a year to bloom, not for
beauty, but that more crude seeds may be scattered. Perpetuate! Flowers
bloom to catch a bug - such girls, to catch a man - perpetuate - oh God,
what for? And these things have laughed at me in the chorus, called me
'Crazy Sal,' because I spoke of things they never dreamed."

"Yes," Paula said quickly, "I've seen something like that. How you will
pity them when you are rested! It is hard for us to understand why such
numbers are sacrificed like a common kind of plants. Nietzsche calls
them 'the much-too-many.' But Nietzsche does not know quite so much as
the Energy that wills them to manifest. It is dreadful, it is pitiful.
It would seem, if God so loved the world - that He could not endure such
pity as would be His at the sight of this suffering and degradation....
But you have no right to despise them - you, of all women. You're
blooming up, up, up, - farther and farther out of the common - your
blooming has been for years because you have kindled your mind. You must
bloom for years still - that's the only meaning of your strength - because
you will kindle your soul.... A woman with power like yours - has no
right but to love the weak. Think what strength you have! There have
been moments in the last half-hour that you have roused me to such a
pitch of thinking - that I have felt weak and ineffectual beside you. You
made me think sometimes of a great submarine - I don't know just
why - flashing in the depths."

"I don't think you see me right," Selma Cross said wearily. "Many times
I have been lost in the dark. I have been wicked - hated the forces that
made me. I have so much in me of the peasant - that I abhor. There have
been times when I would have been a prostitute for a clean house and
decent clothes to cover me, but men did not look at _The Thing_ - only
the old man, and one other!" Her eyes brightened, either at the memory
or at the thought that she was free from the former.... "Don't wince and
I'll tell you about that angel. You will be wiser. I don't want you for
my friend, if I must keep something back. It was over three years ago,
during my first real success. I was rather startling as Sarah Blixton in
Heber's _Caller Herrin_. It was in that that I learned repression. That
was my struggle - to repress.... Old man Villiers saw me, and was wise
enough to see my future. 'Here's a girl,' I can imagine him saying, 'who
is ugly enough to be square to one man, and she's a comer in spite of
her face.' He showed where his check-book could be of unspeakable
service. It was all very clear to me. I felt I had struggled enough, and
went with him.... Villiers is that kind of New Yorker who feels that he
has nothing left to live for, when he ceases to desire women. In his
vanity - they are always vain - he wanted to be seen with a woman
mentioned on Broadway. It was his idea of being looked up to - and of
making other men envious. You know his sort have no interest - save where
they can ruin.

"Then for two winter months, Villiers and I had a falling out. He went
South, and I remained here to work. During this time I had my first real
brush with love - a young Westerner. It was terrific. He was a brilliant,
but turned out a rotten cad. I couldn't stand that in a young man....
You can pity an old man, much the worse for living, when he is brazenly
a cad - doesn't know anything else.... When Villiers came back from the
South I was bought again. I put it all nakedly, Paula, but I was older
than you are now, when that sort of thing began with me. Remember that!
Still, I mustn't take too much credit, because I didn't attract men....
If you don't abhor me now, you never will, little neighbor, because you
have the worst.... Sometime I'll tell you a real little love story - oh,
I'm praying it's real! He's a hunch-back, Paula, - the author of _The
Thing_.... Nobody could possibly want a hunch-back but me - yet I'm not
good enough. He's so noble and so fine!... The past is so full of
abominations, and I'm not a liar.... I don't think he'd want me - though
I could be his nurse. I could _carry him_!... Then there is a long-ago
promise.... Oh, I know I'm not fit for that kind of happiness!..."

There was an inspiration in the last. It was strong enough to subvert
Paula's mind from the road of dreary degradation over which she had been
led. From rousing heights of admiration to black pits of shame, she had
fallen, but here again was a tonic breath from clean altitudes. The
picture in her mind of this great glowing creature tenderly mothering
the poor crippled genius of _The Thing_ - was a thrilling conception.

"There is nothing which cannot be forgiven - save soul-death!" Paula said
ardently. "What you have told me is very hard to adjust, but I hope for
your new love. Oh, I am glad, Selma, that the other is all behind! I
don't know much of such things, but it has come to me that it is easier
for a man to separate himself from past degradations and be clean - than
a woman. This is because a man gives - _but the woman receives her sin_!
That which is given cannot continue to defile, but woman is the
matrix.... Still, you do not lie. Such things are so dreadful when
matted in lies. We all carry burdensome devils - but few uncover them, as
you have done for me. There is something noble in looking back into the
past with a shudder, saying, - 'I was sick and full of disease in those
days,' but when one hugs the corrosion, painting it white all
over - there is an inner devouring that is never appeased.... All our
sisters are in trouble. I think we live in a world of suffering
sororities. You are big and powerful. Your greater life is to come.... I
am glad for what you have put behind. You will progress farther and
farther from it. I am glad you are back across the hall - alone!"

* * * * *

For many moments after Selma Cross had gone, Paula sat thinking under
the lamp. At last she drew the sheets of the letter to Charter from the
desk-drawer, and read them over. The same rapt smile came to her lips,
as when she was writing. It was a letter to her Ideal - the big figure of
cleanness and strength, she wanted this man to be. Even a line or two
she added. No one ever knew, but Paula.... At length, she began tearing
the sheets. Finer and finer became the squares under her tense
fingers - a little pile of _confetti_ on the desk at last - and brushed
into a basket.... Then she wrote another letter, blithe, brief,
gracious - about his book and her opinion. It was a letter such as he
would expect....




SIXTH CHAPTER

PAULA IS CALLED TO PARLOR "F" OF THE _MAID-STONE_ WHERE THE BEYOND-DEVIL
AWAITS WITH OUTSTRETCHED ARMS


Paula felt singularly blessed the next morning wondering if ever there
existed another woman into whose life-channel poured such strange and
torrential tributaries. The current of her mind was broadening and
accelerating. She was being prepared for some big expression, and there
is true happiness in the thought. Reifferscheid, since her pilgrimage to
Staten Island, had become a fixture of delight. Selma Cross had borne
her down on mighty pinions to the lower revelations of the City, but had
winged her back again on a breeze of pure romance. Madame Nestor had
parted the curtains, which shut from the world's eye, hell unqualified,
yet her own life was a miracle of penitence. Not the least of her
inspirations was this mild, brave woman of the solitudes. Then, there
was the commanding mystery of Bellingham, emerging in her mind now from
the chicaneries of the past ten days; rising, indeed, to his own
valuation - that of a New Voice. Finally, above and before all, was the
stirring figure of her Ideal - her splendid secret source of
optimism - Charter, less a man than a soul in her new dreams - a name to
which she affixed, "The Man-Who-Must-Be-Somewhere."

Just once, the thought came to Paula that Bellingham had designed a
meeting such as took place in the Park to soften her aversion and clear
from her mind any idea of his abnormality. She could not hold this
suspicion long. Attributing evil strategies to another was not easy for
Paula. The simpler way now was to give him every benefit, even to regard
the recent dreadful adventures with an intangible devil - as an outburst
of her neglected feminine prerogatives, coincident with the stress of
her rather lonely intellectual life. As for Madame Nestor, might she not
have reached a more acute stage of a similar derangement? Paula was not
unacquainted with the great potentialities of fine physical health, nor
did she miss the fact that Mother Nature seldom permits a woman of
normal development to reach the fourth cycle of her years, without
reckoning with the ancient reason of her being.

She now regarded early events connected with Bellingham as one might
look back upon the beginning of a run of fever.... Could he be one of
the New Voices?

Paula loved to think that Woman was to be the chief resource of the
Lifting Age. Everywhere among men she saw the furious hunger for
spiritual refreshment. Words, which she heard by mere chance from
passers-by, appalled her. It was so tragically clear to her how the life
led by city men starves their better natures - that there were times when
she could hardly realize they did not see it. She wanted someone to make
the whole world understand - that just as there are hidden spaces between
the atoms of steel which made radioactivity possible, so in the human
body there is a permeating space, in which the soul of man is built day
by day from every thought and act; and when the worn-out physical
envelope falls away - there it stands, a record to endure.... She wanted
to believe that it was the office of woman to help man make this record
beautiful. Just as the old Anglo-Saxon for "lady" means "giver of
bread," so she loved to think that the spiritual loaf was in the keeping
of woman also.

Paula could not meditate without ecstasy upon the thought that a great
spiritual tide was rising, soon to overflow every race and nation. The
lifting of man from greedy senses to the pure happiness of brotherhood,
was her most intimate and lovely hope. Back of everything, this lived
and lit her mind. There were transcendent moments - she hardly dared to
describe or interpret them - when cosmic consciousness swept into her
brain. Swift was the visitation, nor did it leave any memorable
impression, but she divined that such lofty moments, different only in
degree, were responsible for the great utterances in books that are
deathless. The shield was torn from her soul, leaving it naked to every
world-anguish. The woman, Paula Linster, became an accumulation of all
suffering - desert thirsts, untold loves, birth and death parturitions,
blind cruelties of battle, the carnal lust of Famine (that soft-treading
spectre), welted flesh under the screaming lash, moaning from the
World's Night everywhere - until the impassioned spirit within rushed
forth to the very horizon's rim to shelter an agonizing people from an
angry God. Such is the genius of race-motherhood - the ineffable spirit
of mediation between Father and child.

One must regard with awe the reaction which follows such an outpouring.

These are the wilderness-wrestlings of the great-souled - the
Gethsemanes. Out of the dream, would appear the actual spectacle of the
City - human beings preying one upon the other, the wolf still frothing
in man's breast - and then would crush down upon her with shattering pain
the realization of her own hopeless ineffectuality. To a mind thus
stricken and desolated often, premonitions of madness come at
last - madness, the black brother of genius. There is safety alone in a
body strong and undefiled to receive again the expanded spirit. From how
many a lustrous youth - tarrying too long by the fetid margins of
sense - has the glory winged away, never to return to a creature fallen
into hairy despoliation.

* * * * *

Paula had returned from down-town about noon. Reifferscheid, who had a
weakness for Herman Melville, and annually endeavored to spur the
American people into a more adequate appreciation of the old sea-lion,
had ordered her to rest her eyes for a few days in _Moby Dick_. With the
fat, old fine-print novel under her arm, Paula let herself into her own
apartment and instantly encountered the occultist's power. She sank to
the floor and covered her face in the pillows of the couch. In the past
twenty-four hours she had come to believe that the enemy had been put
away forever, yet here in her own room she was stricken, and so
swiftly.... Though she did not realize it at once, many of the thoughts
which gradually surged into her mind were not her own. She came to see
Bellingham as other women saw him - as a great and wise doctor. Her own
conception battled against this, but vainly, vaguely. It was as if he
held the balance of power in her consciousness. Without attempting to
link them together, the processes of her mind quickly will be set into
words.

Her first thought, before the tightening of Bellingham's control in her
brain, was to rush into his presence and fiercely arraign him for the
treachery he had committed. After blaming Madame Nestor and deforming
her own faculties to clear him from evil, the devilishness of the
present visitation overwhelmed. And how infinitely more black and
formidable now was his magic - after the utterances in the Park! This was
her last real stand.... A cry of hopelessness escaped her lips, for the
numbness was already about her eyes, and creeping back like a pestilence
along the open highways of her mind.

"Come to me. The way is open. I am alone. I am near.... Come to me,
Paula Linster, of plentiful treasures.... Do you not see the open


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 5 of 23)