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Will Levington Comfort.

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face of Bellingham (burning eyes in the midst of ghastly pallor), caught
and held her mind still. From a room small as her own, and gray like her
own with morning, he called to her: "Come to me.... Come to me, Paula
Linster.... I have lived for you - oh, come to me!"

She sprang out of bed, and knelt. How long it was before she freed
herself, Paula never knew. Indeed, she was not conscious of being
actually awake, until she felt the bitter cold and hurried into the
heated room beyond. She was physically wretched, but no longer
obsessed.... She would not believe now that the beyond-devil had called
again. It was all a dream, she told herself again and again - this rush
of images and the summons from the enemy. Yesterday, she had been too
happy; human bodies cannot endure so long such refining fire; to-day was
the reaction and to-morrow her old strength and poise would come again.
Quite bravely, she assured herself that she was glad to pay the price
for the hours of yesterday. She called for the full series of morning
papers, resolving to occupy her mind with the critical notices of the
new play.

These were quite remarkable in the unanimity of their praise. The
Cross-Cabot combination had won, indeed, but Paula could extract no
buoyancy from the fact, nor did black coffee dispel the vague
premonitive shadows which thickened in the background of her mind. The
rapping of Selma Cross upon her door was hours earlier than ever before.
She, too, had called for the morning papers. A first night is never
finished until these are out. Paula did not feel equal to expressing all
that the play had meant to her. It was with decided disinclination that
she admitted her neighbor.

Selma Cross had not bathed, nor dressed her hair. She darted in
noiselessly in furry slippers - a yellow silk robe over her night-dress.
Very silken and sensuous, the huge, laughing creature appeared as she
sank upon the lounge and shaded her yellow eyes from the light. So
perfect was her health, and so fresh her happiness, that an hour or two
of sleep had not left her eyes heavy nor her skin pallid. There was an
odor of sweet clover about her silks that Paula never sensed afterward
without becoming violently ill. She knew she was wrong - that every fault
was hers - but she could not bear the way her neighbor cuddled this
morning in the fur of the couch-covering. Selma had brought in every
morning newspaper issued and a thick bundle of telegrams besides. Paula
told her, literally forcing the sentences, how splendidly the play and
her own work had appealed to her. This task, which would have been a
pure delight at another time, was adequately accomplished only after
much effort now. It appeared that the actress scarcely heard what she
was saying. The room was brightening and there was a grateful piping of
steam in the heaters of the apartment.

"So glad you liked it, dear," Selma said briefly. "And isn't it great
the way the papers treated it? Not one of them panned the play nor my
work.... I say, it's queer when a thing you've dreamed of for years
comes true at last - it's different from the way you've seen it come to
others. I mean there's something unique and a fullness you never
imagined. Oh, I don't know nor care what I'm drowning to say.... Please
do look over these telegrams - _from everybody_! There's over a hundred!
I had to come in here. I'd have roused you out of bed - if you hadn't
been up. The telephone will be seething a little later - and I wanted
this talk with you."

Big theatrical names were attached to the yellow messages. It is a
custom for stages-folk to speed a new star through the first performance
with a line of courage - wired. You are supposed to count your real
friends in those who remember the formality. It is not well to be a day
late....

"And did you notice how Felix Larch uncoiled?"

Paula looked up from the telegrams to explain how this critic had been
the object of her contemplation the night before.

"He hasn't turned loose in that sort of praise this season," Selma Cross
added. "His notice alone, dear, is enough to keep us running at the
_Herriot_ until June - and we'll open there again in the fall, past
doubt."

Paula felt wicked in that she must enthuse artificially. She forced
herself to remember that ordinarily she could have sprung with a merry
heart into the very centre of the other's happiness.

"Listen, love," Selma resumed, ecstactically hugging her pillow, "I want
to tell you things. I wanted to yesterday, but I had to hurry off.
You've got so much, that you must have the rest. Besides, it's in my
mind this morning, because it was the beginning of last night - - "

"Yes, tell me," Paula said faintly, bringing her a cup of coffee.

"I was first smitten with the passion to act - a gawky girl of ten at a
child's party," Selma began. "I was speaking a piece when the impulse
came to turn loose. It may have been because I was so homely and
straight-haired, or it may have been that I did the verses so
differently from the ordinary routine of speaking pieces - anyway, a boy
in the room laughed. Another boy immediately bored in upon the scoffer,
downed his enemy and was endeavoring hopefully to kill him with bare
hands, when I interfered. My champion and I walked home together and
left a wailing and disordered company. That's the first brush.

"My home was Danube, Kentucky. They had a dramatic society there. Eight
years after the child's party, this dramatic society gave _A Tribute to
Art_. Where the piece came from is forgotten. How it got its name never
was known outside of the sorry brain that thrust it, deformed but
palpitating, upon the world. Mrs. Fiske couldn't have made other than a
stick of the heroine. The hero was larger timber, though too dead for
vine leaves. But, I think I told you about the Big Sister - put there in
blindness or by budding genius. There were possibilities in that
character. Danube didn't know it, or it wouldn't have fallen to me.
Indeed, I remember toward the end of the piece - a real moment of windy
gloom and falling leaves, a black-windowed farmhouse on the left, the
rest a desolate horizon - in such a moment the Big Sister plucks out her
heart to show its running death.

"I had persisted in dramatic work, in and out of season, during those
eight years, but it really was because the Big Sister didn't need to be
beautiful that I got the part. I wove the lines tighter and sharpened
the thing in rehearsals, until the rest of the cast became afraid, not
that I would outshine them, but that I might disgrace the society on the
night o' nights. You see, I was only just tolerated. Poor father, he
wasn't accounted much in Danube, and there was a raft of us. Poor, dear
man!

"Danube wasn't big enough to attract real shows, so the visiting drama
gave expression to limited trains, trap-doors, blank cartridges and
falling cliffs" - Selma Cross chuckled expansively at the memory - "and I
plunged my fellow-townsmen into waters deeper and stormier than
_Nobody's Claim_ or _Shadows of a Great City_. Wasn't it monstrous?"

Paula inclined her head, but was not given time to answer.

"A spring night in Kentucky - hot, damp, starlit - shall I ever forget
that terrible night of _A Tribute to Art_? All Danube somebodies were
out to see the younger generation perpetuate the lofty culture of the
place. Grandmothers were there, who played _East Lynne_ on the same
stage - before the raids of Wolfert and Morgan; and daddies who sat like
deans, eyes dim, but artistic, you know - watched the young idea progress
upon familiar paths.... The heroine did the best she could. I was a
camel beside her - strode about her raging and caressing. You see how I
could have spoiled _The Thing_ last night - if I had let the passion
flood through me like a torrent through a broken dam? That's what I did
in Danube - and some full-throated baying as well. Oh, it is horrible to
remember.

"The town felt itself brutalized, and justly. I had left a rampant thing
upon every brain, and very naturally the impulse followed to squelch the
perpetrator for all time. I don't blame Danube now. I had been bad; my
lack of self-repression, scandalous. The part, as I had evolved it, was
out of all proportion to the piece, to Danube, to amateur theatricals. I
don't know if I struck a false note, but certainly I piled on the
feeling.

"Can you imagine, Paula, that it was an instant of singular glory to
me - that climax?... Poor Danube couldn't see that I was combustible
fuel, freshly lit; that I was bound to burn with a steady flame when the
pockets of gas were exploded.... My dazed people did not leave the hall
at once. It was as if they had taken strong medicine and wanted to study
the effect upon each other. I came out from behind at last, up the
aisle, sensing disorder where I had expected praise, and was joined by
my old champion, Calhoun Knox, who had whipped the scoffer at the
child's party. He pressed my hand. We had always been friends. Passing
around the edge of the crowd, I heard this sentence:

"'Some one - the police, if necessary - must prevent Selma Cross from
making another such shocking display of herself!'

"It was a woman who spoke, and the man at her side laughed. I had no
time nor thought to check Calhoun. He stepped up to the man beside the
woman. 'Laugh like that again,' he said coldly, 'and I'll kill you!'

"It seemed to me that all Danube turned upon us. My face must have been
mist-gray. I know I felt like falling. The woman's words had knifed me.

"'_Oh, you cat-minds!_' I flung at them. Calhoun Knox drew me out into
the dark. I don't know how far out on the Lone Ridge Pike we walked,
before it occurred to either of us to halt or speak," Selma Cross went
on very slowly. "I think we walked nearly to the Knobs. The night had
cleared. It was wonderfully still out there among the hemp-fields. I
knew how he was pitying me, and told him I must go away.

"'I can't stand for you to go away, Selma,' Calhoun said. 'I want you to
stay and be mine always. We always got along together. You are beautiful
enough to me!'

"I guess it was hard for him to say it," the woman finished with a
laugh, "I used to wish he hadn't put in that 'enough.' But that
moment - it was what I needed. There was always something big and simple
about Calhoun Knox. My hand darted to his shoulder and closed there like
a mountaineer's, 'You deserve more of a woman than I am, Calhoun,' I
said impetuously, 'but you can have me when I come to marry - but, God,
that's far off. I like you, Calhoun. I'd fight for you to the death - as
you fought for me to-night and long ago. I think I'd hate any woman who
got you - but there's no wife in me to-night. I have failed to win
Danube, Kentucky, but I'll win the world. I may be a burnt-out hag then,
but I'll come back - when I have won the world - and you can have me and
it.... Listen, Calhoun Knox, if ever a man means _husband_ to me - you
shall be the man, but to-night,' I ended with a flourish, and turned
back home, 'I'm not a woman - just a devil at war with the world!'"

"But haven't you heard from him?" Paula asked, after a moment.

"Yes, he wrote and wrote. Calhoun Knox is the kind of stuff that
remembers. The time came when I didn't have the heart to answer. I was
afraid I'd ask him for money, or ask him to come to help me. Help out of
Danube! I couldn't do that - better old Villiers.... But I mustn't lie to
you. I went through the really hard part alone.... So Calhoun's letters
were not answered, and maybe he has forgotten. Anyway, before I
marry - he shall have his chance. Oh, I'll make it hard for him. I
wouldn't open any letter from Danube now - but he shall have his
chance - - "

"What do you mean to do?"

"Why, we'll finish the season here - and Vhruebert has promised us a
little run in the West during June. We touch Cincinnati. From there I'll
take the Company down to Danube. I've got to win the world and Danube.
After the play, I'll walk out on the Lone Ridge pike - among the
hemp-fields - with Calhoun Knox - - "

"But he may have married - - "

"God, how I hope so! I shall wish him kingly happiness - and rush back to
Stephen Cabot."

Paula could not be stirred by the story this morning. She missed, as
never before, some big reality behind the loves of Selma Cross. There
was too much of the sense of possession in her story - arm-possession. So
readily, could she be transformed into the earthy female, fighting tooth
and claw for her own. Paula could hardly comprehend in her present
depression, what she had said yesterday about Stephen Cabot's capacity
to forgive.... She was glad, when Selma Cross rose, yawned, stretched,
and shook herself. The odor of sweet clover was heaviness in the
room.... The long, bare arm darted over the reading-table and plucked
forth the book Paula loved. The volume had not been hidden; there was no
reason why she should not have done this, yet the action hurt the other
like a drenching of icy water upon her naked heart.

"Ho-ho - Quentin Charter! So _A Damsel Came to Peter_?"

"I think - I hear your telephone, - Selma!" Paula managed to say, her
voice dry, as if the words were cut from paper.

"Yes, yes, I must go, but here's another story. A rotten cad - but how he
can write! I don't mean books - but letters!... He's the one I told you
about - the Westerner - while the old man was in the South!"

The last was called from the hall. The heavy door slammed between them.

Paula could not stand - could not keep her mouth from dropping open. Her
temples seemed to be cracking apart.... She saw herself in
half-darkness - like _The Thing_ last night - beating her breast in the
gloom. She felt as if she must laugh - in that same wind-blown, chattering
way.




ELEVENTH CHAPTER

PAULA IS SWEPT DEEP INTO A DESOLATE COUNTRY BY THE HIGH TIDE, BUT NOTES
A QUICK CHANGE IN SELMA CROSS


Paula wrote a short letter to Quentin Charter in the afternoon, and did
not begin to regret it until too late. It was not that she had said
anything unwise or discordant - but that she had written at all.... Her
heart felt dead. She had trusted her all to one - and her all was lost. A
little white animal that had always been warm and petted, suddenly
turned naked to face the reality of winter, - this was the first sense,
and the paramount trouble was that she could not die quickly enough. The
full realization was slow to come. Indeed, it was not until the night
and the next day that she learned the awful reaches of suffering of
which a desolated human mind is capable. It was like one of those
historic tides which rise easily to the highest landmarks of the
shore-dweller, and not till then begin to show their real fury,
devastating vast fields heretofore virgin to the sea. Along many coasts
and in many lives there is one, called The High Tide.... Paula felt that
she could have coped with her sorrow, had this been a personal blow, but
her faith in the race of men, the inspiration of her work, her dream of
service - all were uprooted.

She did not pretend to deny that she had loved Quentin Charter - her
first and loftiest dream of a mate, the heart's cry of all her
womanhood. True, as man and woman, they had made no covenant, but to her
(and had he not expressed the same in a score of ways?), there had been
enacted a more wonderful adjustment, than any words could bring about.
This was the havoc. She had lost more than a mere human lover. She dared
now to say it, because, in losing, she perceived how great it had
become - the passion was gone from her soul. Her place in the world was
desolate; all her labors pointless. As a woman, she had needed his arms,
less than an anchorage of faith in his nobility. And how her faith had
rushed forth to that upper window across the States!

_Words_ - the very word was poison to her. Writing - an emptiness, a
treachery. Veritably, he had torn the pith out of all her loved
books.... Bellingham had shown her what words meant - words that drew
light about themselves, attracting a brilliance that blinded her; words
that wrought devilishness in the cover of their white light - but
Bellingham had not assailed her faith. This was the work of a man who
had lifted her above the world, not one who called from beneath.
Bellingham could not have crippled her faith like this - and left it to
die.... Almost momentarily, came the thought of his letters - thoughts
_from_ these letters. They left her in a dark - that was madness....

And if they were false, what was the meaning of her exaltations? Night
and morning she had looked into the West, sending him all the graces of
her mind, all the secrets of her heart. He had told her of the strange
power that had come to him, of the new happiness - how, as never before,
he had felt radiations of splendid strength. She had not hurried him to
her, but had read with ecstasy, believing that a tithe of his new power
was her gift.... Words, desolate, damnable words.... "And I had thought
to heal and lift New York," she exclaimed mockingly, looking down into
the gray streets after the age-long night. "New York holds fast to her
realities - the things she has found sure. It is well to be normal and
like New York!"

The day after the door had shut upon Selma Cross, Paula was a betrayed
spirit wandering alone in polar darkness. She had not slept, nor could
she touch food. Twice the actress had rapped; repeatedly the telephone
called - these hardly roused her. Letters were thrust under her door and
lay untouched in the hall. She was lying upon the lounge in the little
room of books, as the darkness swiftly gathered that second day. All the
meanings of her childhood, all the promises for fulfillment with the
years, were lost. The only passion she knew was for the quick end of
life - to be free from the world, and its Bellinghams.

"God, tell me," she murmured, and her voice sounded dry and strange in
the dark, "what is this thing, Soul, which cries out for its
Ideal - builds its mate from all things pure, from dreams that are
cleansed in the sky; dreams that have not known the touch of any earthly
thing - what is this Soul, that, now bereft, cries with Rachel, 'Death,
let me in!...' Oh, Death, put me to sleep - put me to sleep!"

* * * * *

Voices reached her from the hall:

"You can knock or ring, sir, if you like," the elevator-man was saying,
"but I tell you Miss Linster is not there. She has not answered the
'phone, and there is one of the letters, sticking out from under the
door, that I put there this morning, or yesterday afternoon."

"When did you see her last?" The voice was Reifferscheid's.

"Day before yesterday she was in and out. Miss Cross, the lady who lives
in this other apartment, said she called on Miss Linster yesterday
morning."

"The point is that she left no word - either with you or with us - before
going away. We are very good friends of hers. I'll ring for luck - - "

The bell rang long and loudly. Paula imagined the thick thumb pressed
against it, and the big troubled face. She wanted to answer - but facing
Reifferscheid was not in her that moment.... The elevator was called
from below.

"No use," Reifferscheid said finally. "Here's a coin for your trouble.
I'll call up the first thing in the morning - - "

She heard the click of the elevator-door, and the quick whine of the
car, sinking in the shaft. She recalled that she had not been at _The
States_ for four or five days. She had intended going down-town
yesterday.... She thought long of Reifferscheid's genuine and changeless
kindness, of his constant praise for sincerity anywhere and his battling
for the preservation of ideals in all work. His faith in Charter
recurred to her - and his frequently unerring judgments of men and women
she had known. All about him was sturdy and wholesome - a substance,
this, to hold fast.... Reifferscheid had come in the crisis. Paula fell
asleep, thinking of snails and stickle-backs, flowers and Sister Annie,
big trees and solid friends.

She awoke in a different world - at least, a world in which tea and toast
and marmalade were reckonable. Her thoughts went bravely down into the
depression for salvage; and a mind that can do this is not without hope.
It was only eight. Reifferscheid had not yet 'phoned.... Charter would
have her letter now, or soon - that letter written seven eternities ago
in the first hysteria, while she could yet weep. She could not have
written in the ice-cold silence of yesterday. She wished that she had
not let him see that she could weep. When the tragedy had risen to
high-tide in her soul - there had been no words for him. Would she ever
write again?...

Her mind reverted now to the heart of things. In the first place, Selma
Cross would not intentionally lie. She asked so little of men - and had
asked less a few years ago - that to have her call one "cad" with an
adjective, was a characterscape, indeed. That she had intimately known
Quentin Charter three years before, was unsettling in itself.... True,
he made no pretensions to a righteous past. All his work suggested utter
delvings into life. He had even hinted a background that was
black-figured and restlessly stirring, but she had believed that he
wrote these things in the same spirit which prompted the ascetic Thoreau
to say, "I have never met a worse man than myself." She believed that
the evils of sense were not so complicated, but that genius can fathom
them without suffering their defilement. His whole present, as depicted
in his letters, was a song - bright as his open prairies, and pure as the
big lakes of his country.... Could she become reconciled to extended
periods of physical abandonment in the Charter-past? Faintly her heart
answered, but quickly, "Yes, if they are forever nameless...." "Specific
abandonments?" Her mind pinned her heart to this, with the added
sentence, "Is it fair for you not to hear what Selma Cross has to
say - and what Quentin Charter may add?..."

The elevator-man was at the door with further letters. He did not ring,
because it was so early. Softly, she went into the hall. There was an
accumulation of mail upon the floor - two from _The States_; one from
Charter.... This last was opened after a struggle. It must have been one
of those just brought, for it was dated, the day before yesterday, and
she usually received his letters the second morning. Indeed, this had
been written on the very afternoon that she had penned her agony.

I know I shall be sorry that I have permitted you to find me in
a black mood like this, but I feel that I must tell you. A
sense of isolation, altogether new, since first your singing
came, flooded over me this afternoon. It is as though the
invisible connections between us were deranged - as if there had
been a storm and the wires were down. It began about noon, when
the thought of the extreme youth of my soul, beside yours,
began to oppress me. I perceived that my mind is imperiously
active rather than humbly wise; that I am capable of using a
few thoughts flashily, instead of being great-souled from rich
and various ages. Ordinarily, I should be grateful for the
gifts I have, and happy in the bright light from you - but this
last seems turned away. Won't you let me hear at once, please?

She was not given long to ponder upon this strange proof of his inner
responsiveness; yet the deep significance of it remained with her, and
could not but restore in part a certain impressive meaning of their
relation. Selma Cross called, and Reifferscheid 'phoned, as Paula was
just leaving for down-town. It had been necessary, she explained, to the
literary editor in his office, for her to make a sorry little pilgrimage
during the past few days. She was very grateful it was over.
Reifferscheid said abruptly that pilgrimages were nefarious when they
made one look so white and trembly.

"The point is, you'd better make another to Staten Island," he added.
"Nice rough passage in a biting wind, barren fields, naked woods, and
all that. Besides, you must see my system of base-burners - - "

"I'll just do that - when I catch up a little on my work," Paula said.
"I'm actually yearning for it, but there are so many loose ends to tie
up, that I couldn't adequately enjoy myself for a day or two. Really,
I'm not at all ill. You haven't enough respect for my endurance, which
is of a very good sort."

"Don't be too sure about that," Reifferscheid said quickly. "It's
altogether too good to be hurt.... Do you realize you've never had your
hat off in this office?"

"I hadn't thought of it," she said, studying him. Plainly by his bravado


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 9 of 23)