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Will Levington Comfort.

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Bellingham had projected into her own brain, helped her vaguely to
understand Charter's earlier years. His splendid emancipation from past
evils lifted her soul. And when he asked, if his present serenity might
not be a preparation for a mightier struggle, the serious reflection
came - might she not ask the same question of herself? The old
Flesh-Mother does not permit one to rest when one is full of
strength.... Paula perceived that Quentin Charter was bravely trying to
get to some sort of rational adjustment her ideal of him and the blooded
reality - and to preserve her from all hurt. Doubts could not exist in a
mind besieged by such letters.... One of her communications must have
reflected something of her terror at the vague forms of his past, which
he partially unveiled, for in answer he wrote:

Do not worry again about the Big Back Time. Perhaps I was over
assertive about the shadowed years. The main thing is that this
is the wonderful present - and you, my white ally of nobler
power and purpose. A gale of good things will come to
us - hopes, communions and inspirations. We shall know each
other - grow so fine together - that Mother Earth at last will
lose her down-pull upon us - as upon perfumes and sunbeams. You
have come with mystical brightening. You are the New Era. There
is healing in Gethsemanes since you have swept with grace and
imperiousness into possession of the Charter heart-country so
long undiscovered. The big area is lit, redeemed from chaos. It
is thrilling - since you are there. Never must you wing away....
Sometime you shall know with what strength and truth and
tenderness I regard you. The spirit of spring is in my veins.
It would turn to summer if we were together, but there could be
no reacting winter because you have evolved a mind and a
soul.... Body and mind and soul all evenly ignited - what a
conception of woman!

Paula begged him not to try to fit such an ideal of the finished
feminine to a little brown tame-plumaged skylark. Since they might some
time meet, she wrote, it was nothing less than unfair for his mind,
trained to visualize its images so clearly, to turn its full energies
upon an ideal, and expect a human stranger - a happening - in the workaday
physical vesture (such as is needed for New York activities) to
sublimate the vision. She told him that he would certainly flee away
from the reality, and that he would have no one but himself to blame.
Visions, she added, do not review books nor write to authors whom they
have not met. All of which, she expressed very lightly, though she could
not but adore the spirit of ideality to which she had aroused his
faculties.

At this time Paula encountered one of the imperishable little books of
the world, bracing to her spirit as a day's camp among mountain-pines.
Nor could she refrain from telling Charter about "The Practice of the
Presence of God," as told in the conversations of Brother Lawrence, a
bare-footed Carmelite of the Seventeenth Century. "No wilderness
wanderings seem to have intervened between the Red Sea and the Jordan of
his experience," she quoted from the preface, and told him how simple it
was for this unlearned man to be good - a mere "footman and soldier"
whose illumination was the result of seeing a dry and leafless tree in
mid-winter, and the thought of the change that would come to it with the
Spring. His whole life thereafter, largely spent in the monastery
kitchen - "a great awkward fellow, who broke everything" - was conducted
as if God were his constantly advising Companion. It was a life of
supernal happiness - and so simple to comprehend. Charter's reply to this
letter proved largely influential in an important decision Paula was
destined to make.

Yes, I have communed with Brother Lawrence - carried the little
volume with me on many voyages. I commend a mind that is fine
enough to draw inspiration from a message so chaste and simple.
You will be interested to hear that I have known another
Brother Lawrence - a man whose holiness one might describe as
"humble" or "lofty," with equal accuracy. This man is a
Catholic priest, Father Fontanel of Martinique. His parish is
in that amazing little port, Saint Pierre - where Africa and
France were long ago transplanted and have fused together so
enticingly. Lafcadio Hearn's country - you will say. I wonder
that this inscrutable master, Hearn, missed Father Fontanel in
his studies.... I was rough from the seas and a long stretch of
military campaigning, when my ship turned into that lovely
harbor of Saint Pierre. Finding Father Fontanel, I stayed over
several ships, and the healing of his companionship restores me
even now to remember.

We would walk together on the _Morne d'Orange_ in the evening.
His church was on the rise of the _morne_ at the foot of _Rue
Victor Hugo_. He loved to hear about my explorations in books,
especially about my studies among the religious enthusiasts. I
would tell him of the almost incredible austerities of certain
mystics to refine the body, and it was really a sensation to
hear him exclaim in his French way: "Can it be possible? I am
very ignorant. All that I know is to worship the good God who
is always with me, and to love my dear children who have so
much to bear. I do not know why I should be so happy - unless it
is because I know so very little. Tell me why I live in a state
of continual transport...." I can hear his gentle Latin tones
even now at night when I shut my eyes - see the lights of the
shipping from that cliff road, hear the creoles' moaning songs
from the cabins, and recall the old volcano, _La Montagne
Peleé_, outlined like a huge couchant beast against the low,
northern stars.

Father Fontanel has meant very much to me. In all my thinking
upon the ultimate happiness of the race, he stands out as the
bright achievement. At the time I knew him, there was not a
single moment of his life in which the physical of the man was
supreme. What his earlier years were I do not know, of course,
but I confess now I should like to know.... The presence of God
was so real to him, that Father Fontanel did not understand at
all his own great spiritual strength. Nor do his people quite
appreciate how great he is among the priests of men. He has
been in their midst so long that they seem accustomed to his
power. Only a stranger can realize what a pure, shining garment
his actual _flesh_ has become. To me there was healing in the
very approach of this man.

Dear Father Fontanel! All I had to do was to substitute "Higher
Self" for "God" and I had my religion - the Practice of the
Presence of the Higher Self. Does it not seem very clear to
you?... To me, God is always an abstraction - something of
vaster glory than the central sun, but one's Spiritual Body,
the real being, integrated through interminable lives, from the
finest materials of thought and action - this Higher Self is the
Presence I must keep always with me, and do I not deserve that
It should stand scornfully aloof, when, against my better
knowledge, I fall short in the performance?... I think it is
his Higher Self which is so lustrous in Father Fontanel, and
the enveloping purity which comes from you is the same. About
such purity there is nothing icy nor fibrous nor sterile....
You are singing in my heart, Skylark.

The picture Charter had drawn of Father Fontanel of Saint Pierre
appealed strongly to Paula; and her mind's quick grasp of the Charter
religion - the Practice of the Presence of the Higher Self - became one of
her moments of illumination. This was ground-down simplicity. True,
every idea of Charter's was based upon reincarnation. Indeed, this
seemed so familiar to him, that he had not even undertaken to state it
as one of his fundamentals. But had she cared, she could have discarded
even that, from the present concept. So to live that the form of the
best within be not degraded; the days a constant cherishing of this
Invisible Friend; the conduct of life constantly adjusted to please this
Companion of purity and wisdom - here was ethics which blew away every
cloud impending upon her Heights. Years of such living could not but
bring one to the Uplands. As to Charter, God had always been to her The
Ineffable - source of solar, aye, universal energy - the Unseen All.
"Walking with God," "talking with God," "a personal God," "presence of
God," - these were forms of speech she could never use, but the Higher
Self - this white charioteer - the soul-body that rises when the clay
falls - here was a Personal God, indeed.




TENTH CHAPTER

PAULA SEES SELMA CROSS IN TRAGEDY, AND IN HER OWN APARTMENT NEXT MORNING
IS GIVEN A REALITY TO PLAY


Selma Cross did not reach New York until the morning of the opening day
at the _Herriot Theatre_. She was very tired from rehearsals and the
try-outs along the string of second cities. There had been a big
difference of opinion regarding _The Thing_, among what New Yorkers are
pleased to call the provincial critics. From the character of the first
notices, on the contrary, it was apparent that the townsmen were not a
little afraid to trust such a startling play to New York. Mid-forenoon
of an early April day, the actress rapped upon Paula's door.

"I have seen the boards," Paula exclaimed. "'Selma Cross' in letters big
as you are; and yesterday afternoon they were hanging the electric sign
in front of the _Herriot_. Also I shall be there to-night - since I was
wise enough to secure a ticket ten days ago. Isn't it glorious?"

"Yes, I am quite happy about it," Selma Cross said, stretching out upon
the lounge. "Of course, it's not over until we see the morning papers. I
was never afraid - even of the vitriol-throwers, before. You see, I have
to think about success for Stephen Cabot, too."

"Is he well?" Paula asked hastily.

"Oh yes, though I think sometimes he's a martyr. Oh, I have so much to
say - - "

"You said you would tell me some time how Vhruebert first decided to
take you on," Paula urged.

"Before I got to the gate where the star-stuff passes through?" Selma
Cross answered laughingly. "That was four years ago. I had been to him
many times before he let me in. His chair squeaked under him. He looked
at me first as if he were afraid I would spring at him. I told him what
I could do, and he kept repeating that he didn't know it and New York
didn't know it. I said I would show New York, but unfortunately I had to
show him first. He screwed up his face and stared at me, as if I were
startlingly original in my ugliness. I know he could hear my heart beat.

"'I can't do anything for you, Miss Gross,' he said impatiently, but in
spite of himself, he added, 'Come to-morrow.' You see, I had made him
think, and that hurt. He knew something of my work all right, and
wondered where he would put a big-mouthed, clear-skinned, yellow-eyed
amazon. The next day, he kept me waiting in the reception-room until I
could have screamed at the half-dressed women on the walls.

"'I don't know exactly why I asked you to come again,' was his greeting
when the door finally opened to me. 'What was it, once more, that you
mean to do?'

"'I mean to be the foremost tragedienne,' I said.

"'Sit down. Tragedy doesn't bay.'

"'I shall make it pay.'

"'Um-m. How do you know? Some brivate vire of yours?'

"'I can show you that I shall make it pay.'

"'My Gott, not here! We will go to the outskirts.'

"And he meant it, Paula. It was mid-winter. He took me to a little
summer-theatre up Lenox way. The place had not been open since
Thanksgiving. Vhruebert sat down in the centre of the frosty parquet,
shivering in his great coat. You know he's a thin-lipped, smile-less
little man, but not such a dead soul as he looks. He leaks out
occasionally through the dollar-varnish. Can you imagine a colder
reception? Vhruebert sat there blowing out his breath repeatedly,
seemingly absorbed in the effect the steam made in a little bar of
sunlight which slanted across the icy theatre. That was my try-out
before Vhruebert. I gave him some of Sudermann, Boker, and Ibsen. He
raised his hand finally, and when I halted, he called in a bartender
from the establishment adjoining, and commanded me to give something
from Camille and Sapho. I would have murdered him if he had been fooling
me after that. The bartender shivered in the cold.

"'What do you think of that, Mr. Vite-Apron?' Vhruebert inquired at
length. He seemed to be warmer.

"'Hot stuff,' said the man. 'It makes your coppers sizzle.'

"The criticism delighted Vhruebert. 'Miss Gross, you make our goppers
sizzle,' he exclaimed, and then ordered wine and told me to be at his
studio to-morrow at eleven. That was the real winning," Selma Cross
concluded. "To-night I put the crown on it."

Paula invariably felt the fling of emotions when Selma Cross was near.
The latter seemed now to have found her perfect dream; certainly there
was fresh coloring and poise in her words and actions. It was
inspiriting for Paula to think of Selma Cross and Stephen Cabot having
been accepted by the hard-headed Vhruebert - that such a pair could eat
his bread and drink his wine with merry hearts. It was more than
inspiriting for her to think of this vibrant heart covering and
mothering the physically unfortunate. Paula asked, as only a woman
could, the question uppermost in both minds.

"Love me?" Selma whispered. "I don't know, dear. I know we love to be
together. I know that I love him. I know that he would not ask me to
take for a husband - a broken vessel - - "

"But you can make him know that - to you - he is not a broken vessel!...
Oh, that would mean so little to me!"

"Yes, but I should have to tell him - of old Villiers - and the other!...
Oh, God, he is white fire! He is not the kind who could understand
that!... I thought I could do anything, I said, 'I am case-hardened.
Nothing can make me suffer!... I will go my way, - and no man, no power,
earthly or occult, can make me alter that way,' but Stephen Cabot has
done it. I would rather win for him to-night, than be called the
foremost living tragedienne.... I think he loves me, but there is the
price I paid - and I didn't need to pay it, for I had already risen out
of the depths. That was vanity. I needed no angel. I didn't care until I
met Stephen Cabot!"

"I think - I think, if I were Stephen Cabot, I could forgive that," Paula
said slowly. She wondered at herself for these words when she was alone,
and the little place of books was no longer energized by the other's
presence.

Selma started up from the lounge, stretched her great arm half across
the room and clutched Paula's hand. There was a soft grateful glow in
the big yellow eyes. "Do you know that means something - from a woman
like you? Always I shall remember that - as a fine thing from my one fine
woman. Mostly, they have hated me - what you call - our sisters."

"You are a different woman - you're all brightened, since you met Stephen
Cabot. I feel this," Paula declared.

"Even if all smoothed out here, there is still the old covenant in
Kentucky," Selma said, after a moment, and sprang to her feet, shaking
herself full-length.

"Won't you tell me about that, too?"

"Yes, but not now. I must go down-town. There is a dress-maker - and _we_
breakfast together.... Root for me - for us, to-night - won't you, dear
girl?"

"With all my heart."

They passed out through the hall together - just as the elevator-man
tucked a letter under the door.... Alone, Paula read this Spring
greeting from Quentin Charter:

I look away this morning into the brilliant East. I think of
you there - as glory waits. I feel the strength of a giant to
battle through dragons of flesh and cataclysms of Nature....
Who knows what conflicts, what conflagrations, rage in the
glowing distance - between you and me? Not I, but that I have
strength - I do know.... By the golden glory of this wondrous
Spring morning which spreads before my eyes a world of work and
heroism blessed of the Most High God, I only ask to know that
you are there - _that you are there_.... While eternity is yet
young, we shall emerge out of time and distance; though it be
from a world altered by great cosmic shattering - yet shall we
emerge, serene man and woman.

You are there in the brilliant East. In good time I shall go to
you. Meanwhile I have your light and your song. The dull dim
brute is gone from me, forever. Even that black prince of the
blood, Passion, stands beyond the magnetic circle. With you
_there_, I feel a divine right kingship, and all the black
princes of the body are afar off, herding with the beasts. I
tell you, since I have heard the Skylark sing - there is no
death.

That day became a vivid memory. Charter reached the highest pinnacle of
her mind - a man who could love and who could wait. The message from the
West exalted her. Here, indeed, was one of the New Voices. All through
the afternoon, out of the hushes of her mind, would rise this pæan from
the West - sentence after sentence _for her_.... No, not for her alone.
She saw him always in the midst of his people, illustrious among his
people.... She saw him coming to her over mountains - again and again,
she caught a glimpse of him, configured among the peaks, and striding
toward her - yet between them was a valley torn with storm.... It came to
her that there must be a prophecy in this message; that he would not be
suffered to come to her easily as his letters came. Yet, the strength he
had felt was hers, and those were hours of ecstasy - while the gray of
the Spring afternoon thickened into dark. Only _The Thing_ could have
called her out that night; for once, when it was almost time to go, the
storm lifted from the valley between them. She saw his path to her, just
for an instant, and she longed to see it again....

Paula entered the theatre a moment before the curtain rose, but in the
remaining seconds of light, discovered in the fourth aisle far to the
right - "the finest, lowest head" and the long white face of Stephen
Cabot. If a man's face may be called beautiful, his was - firm, delicate,
poetic, - brilliant eyes, livid pallor. And the hand in which the thin
cheek rested, while large and chalky-white, was slender as a girl's....
In the middle of the first act, a tall, elderly man shuffled down the
aisle and sank into the chair in front of Paula, where he sprawled,
preparing to be bored. This was Felix Larch, one of the best known of
the metropolitan critics, notorious as a play-killer.


The first-night crowd can be counted on. It meant nothing to Vhruebert
that the house was packed. The venture was his up to the rise of the
curtain. Paula was absorbed by the first two acts of the play, but did
not feel herself fit to judge. She was too intensely interested in the
career of Selma Cross; in the face of Stephen Cabot; in the attitudes of
Felix Larch, who occasionally forgot to pose. It was all very big and
intimate, but the bigger drama, up to the final curtain, was the battle
for success against the blasé aspirations of the audience and the
ultra-critical enemy personified in the man before her.

The small and excellent company was balanced to a crumb. Adequate
rehearsals had finished the work. Then the lines were rich, forceful and
flowing - strange with a poetic quality that "got across the footlights."
Paula noted these exterior matters with relief. Unquestionably the
audience forgot itself throughout the second act. Paula realized, with
distaste, that her own critical sense was bristling for trouble. She had
hoped to be as receptive to emotional enjoyment as she imagined the
average play-goer to be. Though she failed signally in this, her
sensibilities were in no way outraged, nor even irritated. On the
contrary, she began to rise to the valor of the work and its
performance. The acting of Selma Cross, though supreme in repression,
was haunting, unforgettable. Felix Larch had twice disturbed her by
taking his seat in the midst of the first and second acts. She had heard
that he rarely sat out a whole performance, and took it therefore as a
good omen when he returned, in quite a gentlemanly fashion, as the final
curtain rose.

By some new mastery of style, Selma Cross had managed, almost
throughout, to keep her profile to the audience. The last act was half
gone, moreover, before the people realized that there were qualities in
her voice, other than richness and flexibility. She had held them thus
far with the theme, charging the massed consciousness of her audience
with subtle passions. Now came the rising moments. Full into the light
she turned her face.... She was quite alone with her tragedy. A gesture
of the great bare arm, as the stage darkened, and she turned loose upon
the men and women a perfect havoc of emptiness - in the shadows of which
was manifesting a huge unfinished human. She made the people see how a
mighty passion, suddenly bereft of its object, turns to devour the brain
that held it. They saw the great, gray face of _The Thing_ slowly rubbed
out - saw the mind behind it, soften and run away into chaos. There was a
whisper, horrible with exhaustion - a breast beaten in the gloom.

Felix Larch swore softly.... _The Thing_ was laughing as the curtain
crawled down over her - an easy, wind-blown, chattering laugh....

The critic grasped the low shoulders of a bald, thin-lipped
acquaintance, exclaiming:

"Where did you get that diadem, Lucky One?"

Paula heard a hoarse voice, but the words of the reply were lost.

"Come over across the street for a minute. I want a stimulant and a talk
with you," Felix Larch added, wriggling into his overcoat.

There was a low, husky laugh, and then plainly these words: "She makes
your goppers sizzle - eh?... Wait until I tell her she has won and I'll
go with you," added the queer little man, whom Paula knew now to be
Vhruebert....

The latter passed along the emptied aisle toward Stephen Cabot, who had
not left his seat. Paula noted with a start that the playwright's head
had dropped forward in a queer way. Vhruebert glanced at him, and
grasped his shoulder. The old manager then cleared his throat - a sound
which apparently had meaning for the nearest usher, who hurried forward
to be dispatched for a doctor. It was very cleverly and quietly done....
Stephen Cabot, who could see more deeply than others into the art of the
woman and the power of his own lines, and possibly deeper into the big
result of this fine union of play and player - had fainted at the
climacteric moment.... A physician now breasted his way through the
crowd at the doors, and _The Thing_ suddenly appeared in the nearest box
and darted forward like a rush of wind. She gathered the insensible one
in her arms and repeated his name low and swiftly.

"Yes," he murmured, opening his eyes at last.

They seemed alone.... Presently Stephen Cabot laughingly protested that
he was quite well, and disappeared behind the scenes, assisted by the
long, bare arm that had so recently hurled havoc over the throng. Paula
waited for a few moments at the door until she was assured.

Driving home through the Park, she felt that she could not endure
another emotion. For a long time she tossed restlessly in bed, too tired
to sleep. A reacting depression had fallen upon her worn nerves. She
could not forget the big structure of the day's joy, but substance had
dropped from it.... The cold air sweeping through her sleeping-room
seemed to come from desolate mountains. Lost entirely was her gladness
of victory in the Selma Cross achievement. She called herself spiteful,
ungrateful, and quite miserably at last sank into sleep....

She was conscious at length of the gray of morning, a stifling pressure
in her lungs, and the effort to rouse herself. She felt the cold upon
her face; yet the air seemed devitalized by some exhausting voltage, she
had known before. There was a horrid jangle in her brain, as of two
great forces battling to complete the circuit there. A face imploring
from a garret-window, a youth in a lion's skin, a rock in the desert and
a rock in the Park, the dim hotel parlor and the figure of yesterday
among the mountain-peaks - so the images rushed past - until the tortured


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 8 of 23)