THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE
GEORGE SYLVESTER VIERECK
Author of Nineveh and Other Poems
New York Moffat, Yard & Company 1912 Copyright, 1907, by Moffat, Yard & Company New York Published September, 1907 Reprinted October, 1907 The Premier Press New York
To My Mother
The freakish little leader of the orchestra, newly imported from Sicily to New York, tossed his conductor's wand excitedly through the air, drowning with musical thunders the hum of conversation and the clatter of plates.
Yet neither his apish demeanour nor the deafening noises that responded to every movement of his agile body detracted attention from the figure of Reginald Clarke and the young man at his side as they smilingly wound their way to the exit.
The boy's expression was pleasant, with an inkling of wistfulness, while the soft glimmer of his lucid eyes betrayed the poet and the dreamer. The smile of Reginald Clarke was the smile of a conqueror. A suspicion of silver in his crown of dark hair only added dignity to his bearing, while the infinitely ramified lines above the heavy-set mouth spoke at once of subtlety and of strength. Without stretch of the imagination one might have likened him to a Roman cardinal of the days of the Borgias, who had miraculously stepped forth from the time-stained canvas and slipped into twentieth century evening-clothes.
With the affability of complete self-possession he nodded in response to greetings from all sides, inclining his head with special politeness to a young woman whose sea-blue eyes were riveted upon his features with a look of mingled hate and admiration.
The woman, disregarding his silent salutation, continued to stare at him wild-eyed, as a damned soul in purgatory might look at Satan passing in regal splendour through the seventy times sevenfold circles of hell.
Reginald Clarke walked on unconcernedly through the rows of gay diners, still smiling, affable, calm. But his companion bethought himself of certain rumours he had heard concerning Ethel Brandenbourg's mad love for the man from whose features she could not even now turn her eyes. Evidently her passion was unreciprocated. It had not always been so. There was a time in her career, some years ago in Paris, when it was whispered that she had secretly married him and, not much later, obtained a divorce. The matter was never cleared up, as both preserved an uncompromising silence upon the subject of their matrimonial experience. Certain it was that, for a space, the genius of Reginald Clarke had completely dominated her brush, and that, ever since he had thrown her aside, her pictures were but plagiarisms of her former artistic self.
The cause of the rupture between them was a matter only of surmise; but the effect it had on the woman testified clearly to the remarkable power of Reginald Clarke. He had entered her life and, behold! the world was transfixed on her canvases in myriad hues of transcending radiance; he had passed from it, and with him vanished the brilliancy of her colouring, as at sunset the borrowed amber and gold fade from the face of the clouds.
The glamour of Clarke's name may have partly explained the secret of his charm, but, even in circles where literary fame is no passport, he could, if he chose, exercise an almost terrible fascination. Subtle and profound, he had ransacked the coffers of mediaeval dialecticians and plundered the arsenals of the Sophists. Many years later, when the vultures of misfortune had swooped down upon him, and his name was no longer mentioned without a sneer, he was still remembered in New York drawing-rooms as the man who had brought to perfection the art of talking. Even to dine with him was a liberal education.
Clarke's marvellous conversational power was equalled only by his marvellous style. Ernest Fielding's heart leaped in him at the thought that henceforth he would be privileged to live under one roof with the only writer of his generation who could lend to the English language the rich strength and rugged music of the Elizabethans.
Reginald Clarke was a master of many instruments. Milton's mighty organ was no less obedient to his touch than the little lute of the troubadour. He was never the same; that was his strength. Clarke's style possessed at once the chiselled chasteness of a Greek marble column and the elaborate deviltry of the late Renaissance. At times his winged words seemed to flutter down the page frantically like Baroque angels; at other times nothing could have more adequately described his manner than the timeless calm of the gaunt pyramids.
The two men had reached the street. Reginald wrapped his long spring coat round him.
"I shall expect you to-morrow at four," he said.
The tone of his voice was deep and melodious, suggesting hidden depths and cadences.
"I shall be punctual."
The younger man's voice trembled as he spoke.
"I look forward to your coming with much pleasure. I am interested in you."
The glad blood mounted to Ernest's cheeks at praise from the austere lips of this arbiter of literary elegance.
An almost imperceptible smile crept over the other man's features.
"I am proud that my work interests you," was all the boy could say.
"I think it is quite amazing, but at present," here Clarke drew out a watch set with jewels, "I am afraid I must bid you good-bye."
He held Ernest's hand for a moment in a firm genial grasp, then turned away briskly, while the boy remained standing open-mouthed. The crowd jostling against him carried him almost off his feet, but his eyes followed far into the night the masterful figure of Reginald Clarke, toward whom he felt himself drawn with every fiber of his body and the warm enthusiasm of his generous youth.
With elastic step, inhaling the night-air with voluptuous delight, Reginald Clarke made his way down Broadway, lying stretched out before him, bathed in light and pulsating with life.
His world-embracing intellect was powerfully attracted by the Giant City's motley activities. On the street, as in the salon, his magnetic power compelled recognition, and he stepped through the midst of the crowd as a Circassian blade cleaves water.
After walking a block or two, he suddenly halted before a jeweller's shop. Arrayed in the window were priceless gems that shone in the glare of electricity, like mystical serpent-eyes—green, pomegranate and water-blue. And as he stood there the dazzling radiance before him was transformed in the prism of his mind into something great and very wonderful that might, some day, be a poem.
Then his attention was diverted by a small group of tiny girls dancing on the sidewalk to the husky strains of an old hurdy-gurdy. He joined the circle of amused spectators, to watch those pink-ribboned bits of femininity swaying airily to and fro in unison with the tune. One especially attracted his notice—a slim olive-coloured girl from a land where it is always spring. Her whole being translated into music, with hair dishevelled and feet hardly touching the ground, the girl suggested an orange-leaf dancing on a sunbeam. The rasping street-organ, perchance, brought to her melodious reminiscences of some flute-playing Savoyard boy, brown-limbed and dark of hair.
For several minutes Reginald Clarke followed with keen delight each delicate curve her graceful limbs described. Then—was it that she grew tired, or that the stranger's persistent scrutiny embarrassed her?—the music oozed out of her movements. They grew slower, angular, almost clumsy. The look of interest in Clarke's eyes died, but his whole form quivered, as if the rhythm of the music and the dance had mysteriously entered into his blood.
He continued his stroll, seemingly without aim; in reality he followed, with nervous intensity, the multiform undulations of the populace, swarming through Broadway in either direction. Like the giant whose strength was rekindled every time he touched his mother, the earth, Reginald Clarke seemed to draw fresh vitality from every contact with life.
He turned east along Fourteenth street, where cheap vaudevilles are strung together as glass-pearls on the throat of a wanton. Gaudy bill-boards, drenched in clamorous red, proclaimed the tawdry attractions within. Much to the surprise of the doorkeeper at a particularly evil-looking music hall, Reginald Clarke lingered in the lobby, and finally even bought a ticket that entitled him to enter this sordid wilderness of decollete art. Street-snipes, a few workingmen, dilapidated sportsmen, and women whose ruined youth thick layers of powder and paint, even in this artificial light, could not restore, constituted the bulk of the audience. Reginald Clarke, apparently unconscious of the curiosity, surprise and envy that his appearance excited, seated himself at a table near the stage, ordering from the solicitous waiter only a cocktail and a programme. The drink he left untouched, while his eyes greedily ran down the lines of the announcement. When he had found what he sought, he lit a cigar, paying no attention to the boards, but studying the audience with cursory interest until the appearance of Betsy, the Hyacinth Girl.
When she began to sing, his mind still wandered. The words of her song were crude, but not without a certain lilt that delighted the uncultured ear, while the girl's voice was thin to the point of being unpleasant. When, however, she came to the burden of the song, Clarke's manner changed suddenly. Laying down his cigar, he listened with rapt attention, eagerly gazing at her. For, as she sang the last line and tore the hyacinth-blossoms from her hair, there crept into her voice a strangely poignant, pathetic little thrill, that redeemed the execrable faultiness of her singing, and brought the rude audience under her spell.
Clarke, too, was captivated by that tremour, the infinite sadness of which suggested the plaint of souls moaning low at night, when lust preys on creatures marked for its spoil.
The singer paused. Still those luminous eyes were upon her. She grew nervous. It was only with tremendous difficulty that she reached the refrain. As she sang the opening lines of the last stanza, an inscrutable smile curled on Clarke's lips. She noticed the man's relentless gaze and faltered. When the burden came, her singing was hard and cracked: the tremour had gone from her voice.
Long before the appointed time Ernest walked up and down in front of the abode of Reginald Clarke, a stately apartment-house overlooking Riverside Drive.
Misshapen automobiles were chasing by, carrying to the cool river's marge the restlessness and the fever of American life. But the bustle and the noise seemed to the boy only auspicious omens of the future.
Jack, his room-mate and dearest friend, had left him a month ago, and, for a space, he had felt very lonely. His young and delicate soul found it difficult to grapple with the vague fears that his nervous brain engendered, when whispered sounds seemed to float from hidden corners, and the stairs creaked under mysterious feet.
He needed the voice of loving kindness to call him back from the valley of haunting shadows, where his poet's soul was wont to linger overlong; in his hours of weakness the light caress of a comrade renewed his strength and rekindled in his hand the flaming sword of song.
And at nightfall he would bring the day's harvest to Clarke, as a worshipper scattering precious stones, incense and tapestries at the feet of a god.
Surely he would be very happy. And as the heart, at times, leads the feet to the goal of its desire, while multicoloured dreams, like dancing-girls, lull the will to sleep, he suddenly found himself stepping from the elevator-car to Reginald Clarke's apartment.
Already was he raising his hand to strike the electric bell when a sound from within made him pause half-way.
"No, there's no help!" he heard Clarke say. His voice had a hard, metallic clangour.
A boyish voice answered plaintively. What the words were Ernest could not distinctly hear, but the suppressed sob in them almost brought the tears to his eyes. He instinctively knew that this was the finale of some tragedy.
He withdrew hastily, so as not to be a witness of an interview that was not meant for his ears.
Reginald Clarke probably had good reason for parting with his young friend, whom Ernest surmised to be Abel Felton, a talented boy, whom the master had taken under his wings.
In the apartment a momentary silence had ensued.
This was interrupted by Clarke: "It will come again, in a month, in a year, in two years."
"No, no! It is all gone!" sobbed the boy.
"Nonsense. You are merely nervous. But that is just why we must part. There is no room in one house for two nervous people."
"I was not such a nervous wreck before I met you."
"Am I to blame for it—for your morbid fancies, your extravagance, the slow tread of a nervous disease, perhaps?"
"Who can tell? But I am all confused. I don't know what I am saying. Everything is so puzzling—life, friendship, you. I fancied you cared for my career, and now you end our friendship without a thought!"
"We must all follow the law of our being."
"The laws are within us and in our control."
"They are within us and beyond us. It is the physiological structure of our brains, our nerve-cells, that makes and mars our lives.
"Our mental companionship was so beautiful. It was meant to last."
"That is the dream of youth. Nothing lasts. Everything flows—panta rei. We are all but sojourners in an inn. Friendship, as love, is an illusion. Life has nothing to take from a man who has no illusions."
"It has nothing to give him."
They said good-bye.
At the door Ernest met Abel.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"For a little pleasure trip."
Ernest knew that the boy lied.
He remembered that Abel Felton was at work upon some book, a play or a novel. It occurred to him to inquire how far he had progressed with it.
Abel smiled sadly. "I am not writing it."
"Not writing it?"
"I am afraid I don't understand."
"Never mind. Some day you will."
"I am so happy you came," Reginald Clarke said, as he conducted Ernest into his studio. It was a large, luxuriously furnished room overlooking the Hudson and Riverside Drive.
Dazzled and bewildered, the boy's eyes wandered from object to object, from picture to statue. Despite seemingly incongruous details, the whole arrangement possessed style and distinction.
A satyr on the mantelpiece whispered obscene secrets into the ears of Saint Cecilia. The argent limbs of Antinous brushed against the garments of Mona Lisa. And from a corner a little rococo lady peered coquettishly at the gray image of an Egyptian sphinx. There was a picture of Napoleon facing the image of the Crucified. Above all, in the semi-darkness, artificially produced by heavy draperies, towered two busts.
"Shakespeare and Balzac!" Ernest exclaimed with some surprise.
"Yes," explained Reginald, "they are my gods."
His gods! Surely there was a key to Clarke's character. Our gods are ourselves raised to the highest power.
Clarke and Shakespeare!
Even to Ernest's admiring mind it seemed almost blasphemous to name a contemporary, however esteemed, in one breath with the mighty master of song, whose great gaunt shadow, thrown against the background of the years has assumed immense, unproportionate, monstrous dimensions.
Yet something might be said for the comparison. Clarke undoubtedly was universally broad, and undoubtedly concealed, with no less exquisite taste than the Elizabethan, his own personality under the splendid raiment of his art. They certainly were affinities. It would not have been surprising to him to see the clear calm head of Shakespeare rise from behind his host.
Perhaps—who knows?—the very presence of the bust in his room had, to some extent, subtly and secretly moulded Reginald Clarke's life. A man's soul, like the chameleon, takes colour from its environment. Even comparative trifles, the number of the house in which we live, or the colour of the wallpaper of a room, may determine a destiny.
The boy's eyes were again surveying the fantastic surroundings in which he found himself; while, from a corner, Clarke's eyes were watching his every movement, as if to follow his thoughts into the innermost labyrinth of the mind. It seemed to Ernest, under the spell of this passing fancy, as though each vase, each picture, each curio in the room, was reflected in Clarke's work. In a long-queued, porcelain Chinese mandarin he distinctly recognised a quaint quatrain in one of Clarke's most marvellous poems. And he could have sworn that the grin of the Hindu monkey-god on the writing-table reappeared in the weird rhythm of two stanzas whose grotesque cadence had haunted him for years.
At last Clarke broke the silence. "You like my studio?" he asked.
The simple question brought Ernest back to reality.
"Like it? Why, it's stunning. It set up in me the queerest train of thought."
"I, too, have been in a whimsical mood to-night. Fancy, unlike genius, is an infectious disease."
"What is the peculiar form it assumed in your case?"
"I have been wondering whether all the things that environ us day by day are, in a measure, fashioning our thought-life. I sometimes think that even my little mandarin and this monkey-idol which, by the way, I brought from India, are exerting a mysterious but none the less real influence upon my work."
"Great God!" Ernest replied, "I have had the identical thought!"
"How very strange!" Clarke exclaimed, with seeming surprise.
"It is said tritely but truly, that great minds travel the same roads," Ernest observed, inwardly pleased.
"No," the older man subtly remarked, "but they reach the same conclusion by a different route."
"And you attach serious importance to our fancy?"
Clarke was gazing abstractedly at the bust of Balzac.
"A man's genius is commensurate with his ability of absorbing from life the elements essential to his artistic completion. Balzac possessed this power in a remarkable degree. But, strange to say, it was evil that attracted him most. He absorbed it as a sponge absorbs water; perhaps because there was so little of it in his own make-up. He must have purified the atmosphere around him for miles, by bringing all the evil that was floating in the air or slumbering in men's souls to the point of his pen.
"And he"—his eyes were resting on Shakespeare's features as a man might look upon the face of a brother—"he, too, was such a nature. In fact, he was the most perfect type of the artist. Nothing escaped his mind. From life and from books he drew his material, each time reshaping it with a master-hand. Creation is a divine prerogative. Re-creation, infinitely more wonderful than mere calling into existence, is the prerogative of the poet. Shakespeare took his colours from many palettes. That is why he is so great, and why his work is incredibly greater than he. It alone explains his unique achievement. Who was he? What education did he have, what opportunities? None. And yet we find in his work the wisdom of Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh's fancies and discoveries, Marlowe's verbal thunders and the mysterious loveliness of Mr. W.H."
Ernest listened, entranced by the sound of Clarke's mellifluous voice. He was, indeed, a master of the spoken word, and possessed a miraculous power of giving to the wildest fancies an air of vraisemblance.
"Yes," said Walkham, the sculptor, "it's a most curious thing."
"What is?" asked Ernest, who had been dreaming over the Sphinx that was looking at him from its corner with the sarcastic smile of five thousand years.
"How our dreams of yesterday stare at us like strangers to-day."
"On the contrary," remarked Reginald, "it would be strange if they were still to know us. In fact, it would be unnatural. The skies above us and the earth underfoot are in perpetual motion. Each atom of our physical nature is vibrating with unimaginable rapidity. Change is identical with life."
"It sometimes seems," said the sculptor, "as if thoughts evaporated like water."
"Why not, under favorable conditions?"
"But where do they go? Surely they cannot perish utterly?"
"Yes, that is the question. Or, rather, it is not a question. Nothing is ever lost in the spiritual universe."
"But what," inquired Ernest, "is the particular reason for your reflection?"
"It is this," the sculptor replied; "I had a striking motive and lost it."
"Do you remember," he continued, speaking to Reginald, "the Narcissus I was working on the last time when you called at my studio?"
"Yes; it was a striking thing and impressed me very much, though I cannot recall it at the moment."
"Well, it was a commission. An eccentric young millionaire had offered me eight thousand dollars for it. I had an absolutely original conception. But I cannot execute it. It's as if a breeze had carried it away."
"That is very regrettable."
"Well, I should say so," replied the sculptor.
Ernest smiled. For everybody knew of Walkham's domestic troubles. Having twice figured in the divorce court, he was at present defraying the expenses of three households.
The sculptor had meanwhile seated himself at Reginald's writing-table, unintentionally scanning a typewritten page that was lying before him. Like all artists, something of a madman and something of a child, he at first glanced over its contents distractedly, then with an interest so intense that he was no longer aware of the impropriety of his action.
"By Jove!" he cried. "What is this?"
"It's an epic of the French Revolution," Reginald replied, not without surprise.
"But, man, do you know that I have discovered my motive in it?"
"What do you mean?" asked Ernest, looking first at Reginald and then at Walkham, whose sanity he began to doubt.
And the sculptor read, trembling with emotion, a long passage whose measured cadence delighted Ernest's ear, without, however, enlightening his mind as to the purport of Walkham's cryptic remark.
Reginald said nothing, but the gleam in his eye showed that this time, at least, his interest was alert.
Walkham saw the hopelessness of making clear his meaning without an explanation.
"I forget you haven't a sculptor's mind. I am so constituted that, with me, all impressions are immediately translated into the sense of form. I do not hear music; I see it rise with domes and spires, with painted windows and Arabesques. The scent of the rose is to me tangible. I can almost feel it with my hand. So your prose suggested to me, by its rhythmic flow, something which, at first indefinite, crystallised finally into my lost conception of Narcissus."
"It is extraordinary," murmured Reginald. "I had not dreamed of it."
"So you do not think it rather fantastic?" remarked Ernest, circumscribing his true meaning.
"No, it is quite possible. Perhaps his Narcissus was engaging the sub-conscious strata of my mind while I was writing this passage. And surely it would be strange if the undercurrents of our mind were not reflected in our style."
"Do you mean, then, that a subtle psychologist ought to be able to read beneath and between our lines, not only what we express, but also what we leave unexpressed?"
"Even if, while we are writing, we are unconscious of our state of mind? That would open a new field to psychology."
"Only to those that have the key, that can read the hidden symbols. It is to me a matter-of-course that every mind-movement below or above the threshold of consciousness must, of a necessity, leave its imprint faintly or clearly, as the case may be, upon our activities."
"This may explain why books that seem intolerably dull to the majority, delight the hearts of the few," Ernest interjected.
"Yes, to the few that possess the key. I distinctly remember how an uncle of mine once laid down a discussion on higher mathematics and blushed fearfully when his innocent wife looked over his shoulder. The man who had written it was a roue."
"Then the seemingly most harmless books may secretly possess the power of scattering in young minds the seed of corruption," Walkham remarked.
"If they happen to understand," Clarke observed thoughtfully. "I can very well conceive of a lecherous text-book of the calculus, or of a reporter's story of a picnic in which burnt, under the surface, undiscoverable, save to the initiate, the tragic passion of Tristram and Iseult."
Several weeks had elapsed since the conversation in Reginald Clarke's studio. The spring was now well advanced and had sprinkled the meadows with flowers, and the bookshelves of the reviewers with fiction. The latter Ernest turned to good account, but from the flowers no poem blossomed forth. In writing about other men's books, he almost forgot that the springtide had brought to him no bouquet of song. Only now and then, like a rippling of water, disquietude troubled his soul.
The strange personality of the master of the house had enveloped the lad's thoughts with an impenetrable maze. The day before Jack had come on a flying visit from Harvard, but even he was unable to free Ernest's soul from the obsession of Reginald Clarke.
Ernest was lazily stretching himself on a couch, waving the smoke of his cigarette to Reginald, who was writing at his desk.
"Your friend Jack is delightful," Reginald remarked, looking up from his papers. "And his ebon-coloured hair contrasts prettily with the gold in yours. I should imagine that you are temperamental antipodes."
"So we are; but friendship bridges the chasm between."
"How long have you known him?"
"We have been chums ever since our sophomore year."
"What attracted you in him?"
"It is no simple matter to define exactly one's likes and dislikes. Even a tiny protoplasmic animal appears to be highly complex under the microscope. How can we hope to analyse, with any degree of certitude, our souls, especially when, under the influence of feeling, we see as through a glass darkly."
"It is true that personal feeling colours our spectacles and distorts the perspective. Still, we should not shrink from self-analysis. We must learn to see clearly into our own hearts if we would give vitality to our work. Indiscretion is the better part of literature, and it behooves us to hound down each delicate elusive shadow of emotion, and convert it into copy."
"It is because I am so self-analytical that I realise the complexity of my nature, and am at a loss to define my emotions. Conflicting forces sway us hither and thither without neutralising each other. Physicology isn't physics. There were many things to attract me to Jack. He was subtler, more sympathetic, more feminine, perhaps, than the rest of my college-mates."
"That I have noticed. In fact, his lashes are those of a girl. You still care for him very much?"
"It isn't a matter of caring. We are two beings that live one life."
"A sort of psychic Siamese twins?"
"Almost. Why, the matter is very simple. Our hearts root in the same soil; the same books have nourished us, the same great winds have shaken our being, and the same sunshine called forth the beautiful blossom of friendship."
"He struck me, if you will pardon my saying so, as a rather commonplace companion."
"There is in him a hidden sweetness, and a depth of feeling which only intimate contact reveals. He is now taking his post-graduate course at Harvard, and for well-nigh two months we have not met; yet so many invisible threads of common experience unite us that we could meet after years and still be near each other."
"You are very young," Reginald replied.
"What do you mean?"
"So you do not believe that two hearts may ever beat as one?"
"No, that is an auditory delusion. Not even two clocks beat in unison. There is always a discrepancy, infinitesimal, perhaps, but a discrepancy nevertheless."
A sharp ring of the bell interrupted the conversation. A moment later a curly head peeped through the door.
"Hello, Ernest! How are you, old man?" the intruder cried, with a laugh in his voice. Then, noticing Clarke, he shook hands with the great man unceremoniously, with the nonchalance of the healthy young animal bred in the atmosphere of an American college.
His touch seemed to thrill Clarke, who breathed heavily and then stepped to the window, as if to conceal the flush of vitality on his cheek.
It was a breath of springtide that Jack had brought with him. Youth is a Prince Charming. To shrivelled veins the pressure of his hand imparts a spark of animation, and middle age unfolds its petals in his presence, as a sunflower gazing at late noon once more upon its lord.
"I have come to take Ernest away from you," said Jack. "He looks a trifle paler than usual, and a day's outing will stir the red corpuscles in his blood."
"I have no doubt that you will take very good care of him," Reginald replied.
"Where shall we go?" Ernest asked, absent-mindedly.
But he did not hear the answer, for Reginald's scepticisms had more deeply impressed him than he cared to confess to himself.
The two boys had bathed their souls in the sea-breeze, and their eyes in light.
The tide of pleasure-loving humanity jostling against them had carried their feet to the "Lion Palace." From there, seated at table and quenching their thirst with high-balls, they watched the feverish palpitations of the city's life-blood pulsating in the veins of Coney Island, to which they had drifted from Brighton Beach.
Ernest blew thoughtful rings of smoke into the air.
"Do you notice the ferocious look in the mien of the average frequenter of this island resort?" he said to Jack, whose eyes, following the impulse of his more robust youth, were examining specimens of feminine flotsam on the waves of the crowd.
"It is," he continued, speaking to himself for want of an audience, "the American who is in for having a 'good time.' And he is going to get it. Like a huntsman, he follows the scent of happiness; but I warrant that always it eludes him. Perhaps his mad race is only the epitome of humanity's vain pursuit of pleasure, the eternal cry that is never answered."
But Jack was not listening. There are times in the life of every man when a petticoat is more attractive to him than all the philosophy of the world.
Ernest was a little hurt, and it was not without some silent remonstrance that he acquiesced when Jack invited to their table two creatures that once were women.
"But they are interesting."
"I cannot find so."
They both had seen better times—of course. Then money losses came, with work in shop or factory, and the voice of the tempter in the commercial wilderness.
One, a frail nervous little creature, who had instinctively chosen a seat at Ernest's side, kept prattling in his ear, ready to tell the story of her life to any one who was willing to treat her to a drink. Something in her demeanour interested him.
"And then I had a stroke of luck. The manager of a vaudeville was my friend and decided to give me a trial. He thought I had a voice. They called me Betsy, the Hyacinth Girl. At first it seemed as if people liked to hear me. But I suppose that was because I was new. After a month or two they discharged me."
"I suppose I was just used up, that's all."
"I never had much of a voice—and the tobacco smoke—and the wine—I love wine."
She gulped down her glass.
"And do you like your present occupation?"
"Why not? Am I not young? Am I not pretty?"
This she said not parrotwise, but with a simple coquettishness that was all her own.
On the way to the steamer a few moments later, Ernest asked, half-reproachfully: "Jack—and you really enjoyed this conversation?"
"Do you mean this?"
"Why, yes; she was—very agreeable."
"We're twenty, Ernest. And then, you see, it's like a course in sociology. Susie—"
"Susie, was that her name?"
"So she had a name?"
"She shouldn't. It should be a number."
"They may not be pillars of society; still, they're human."
"Yes," said Ernest, "that is the most horrible part of it."
The moon was shining brightly.
Swift and sure the prow of the night-boat parted the silvery foam.
The smell of young flesh. Peals of laughter. A breathless pianola. The tripping of dancing-feet. Voices husked with drink and voices soft with love. The shrill accents of vulgarity. Hustling waiters. Shop-girls. Bourgeois couples. Tired families of four and upward. Sleeping children. A boy selling candy. The crying of babies.
The two friends were sitting on the upper deck, muffled in their long rain-coats.
In the distance the Empire City rose radiant from the mist.
"Say, Ernest, you should spout some poetry as of old. Are your lips stricken mute, or are you still thinking of Coney Island?"
"Oh, no, the swift wind has taken it away. I am clean, I am pure. Life has passed me. It has kissed me, but it has left no trace."
He looked upon the face of his friend. Their hands met. They felt, with keen enjoyment, the beauty of the night, of their friendship, and of the city beyond.
Then Ernest's lips moved softly, musically, twitching with a strange ascetic passion that trembled in his voice as he began:
_"Huge steel-ribbed monsters rise into the air Her Babylonian towers, while on high, Like gilt-scaled serpents, glide the swift trains by, Or, underfoot, creep to their secret lair. A thousand lights are jewels in her hair, The sea her girdle, and her crown the sky; Her life-blood throbs, the fevered pulses fly. Immense, defiant, breathless she stands there.
"And ever listens in the ceaseless din, Waiting for him, her lover, who shall come, Whose singing lips shall boldly claim their own, And render sonant what in her was dumb, The splendour, and the madness, and the sin, Her dreams in iron and her thoughts of stone."_
He paused. The boat glided on. For a long time neither spoke a word.
After a while Jack broke the silence: "And are you dreaming of becoming the lyric mouth of the city, of giving utterance to all its yearnings, its 'dreams in iron and its thoughts of stone'?"
"No," replied Ernest, simply, "not yet. It is strange to what impressions the brain will respond. In Clarke's house, in the midst of inspiring things, inspiration failed me. But while I was with that girl an idea came to me—an idea, big, real."
"Will it deal with her?"
Ernest smiled: "Oh, no. She personally has nothing to do with it. At least not directly. It was the commotion of blood and—brain. The air—the change. I don't know what."
"What will it be?" asked Jack, with interest all alert.
"A play, a wonderful play. And its heroine will be a princess, a little princess, with a yellow veil."
"What of the plot?"
"That I shall not tell you to-day. In fact, I shall not breathe a word to any one. It will take you all by surprise—and the public by storm."
"So it will be playable?"
"If I am not very much mistaken, you will see it on Broadway within a year. And," he added graciously, "I will let you have two box-seats for the first night."
They both chuckled at the thought, and their hearts leaped within them.
"I hope you will finish it soon," Jack observed after a while. "You haven't done much of late."
"A similar reflection was on my mind when you came yesterday. That accounts for the low spirits in which you found me."
"Ah, indeed," Jack replied, measuring Ernest with a look of wonder. "But now your face is aglow. It seems that the blood rushes to your head swifter at the call of an idea than at the kiss of a girl."
"Thank God!" Ernest remarked with a sigh of relief. "Mighty forces within me are fashioning the limpid thought. Passion may grip us by the throat momentarily; upon our backs we may feel the lashes of desire and bathe our souls in flames of many hues; but the joy of activity is the ultimate passion."
It seemed, indeed, as if work was to Ernest what the sting of pleasure is to the average human animal. The inter-play of his mental forces gave him the sensuous satisfaction of a woman's embrace. His eyes sparkled. His muscle tightened. The joy of creation was upon him.
Often very material reasons, like stone weights tied to the wings of a bird, stayed the flight of his imagination. Magazines were waiting for his copy, and he was not in the position to let them wait. They supplied his bread and butter.
Between the bread and butter, however, the play was growing scene by scene. In the lone hours of the night he spun upon the loom of his fancy a brilliant weft of swift desire—heavy, perfumed, Oriental—interwoven with bits of gruesome tenderness. The thread of his own life intertwined with the thread of the story. All genuine art is autobiography. It is not, however, necessarily a revelation of the artist's actual self, but of a myriad of potential selves. Ah, our own potential selves! They are sometimes beautiful, often horrible, and always fascinating. They loom to heavens none too high for our reach; they stray to yawning hells beneath our very feet.
The man who encompasses heaven and hell is a perfect man. But there are many heavens and more hells. The artist snatches fire from both. Surely the assassin feels no more intensely the lust of murder than the poet who depicts it in glowing words. The things he writes are as real to him as the things that he lives. But in his realm the poet is supreme. His hands may be red with blood or white with leprosy: he still remains king. Woe to him, however, if he transcends the limits of his kingdom and translates into action the secret of his dreams. The throng that before applauded him will stone his quivering body or nail to the cross his delicate hands and feet.
Sometimes days passed before Ernest could concentrate his mind upon his play. Then the fever seized him again, and he strung pearl on pearl, line on line, without entrusting a word to paper. Even to discuss his work before it had received the final brush-strokes would have seemed indecent to him.
Reginald, too, seemed to be in a turmoil of work. Ernest had little chance to speak to him. And to drop even a hint of his plans between the courses at breakfast would have been desecration.
Sunset followed sunset, night followed night. The stripling April had made room for the lady May. The play was almost completed in Ernest's mind, and he thought, with a little shudder, of the physical travail of the actual writing. He felt that the transcript from brain to paper would demand all his powers. For, of late, his thoughts seemed strangely evanescent; they seemed to run away from him whenever he attempted to seize them.
The day was glad with sunshine, and he decided to take a long walk in the solitude of the Palisades, to steady hand and nerve for the final task.
He told Reginald of his intention, but met with little response. Reginald's face was wan and bore the peculiar pallor of one who had worked late at night.
"You must be frightfully busy?" Ernest asked, with genuine concern.
"So I am," Reginald replied. "I always work in a white heat. I am restless, nervous, feverish, and can find no peace until I have given utterance to all that clamours after birth."
"What is it that is so engaging your mind, the epic of the French Revolution?"
"Oh, no. I should never have undertaken that. I haven't done a stroke of work on it for several weeks. In fact, ever since Walkham called, I simply couldn't. It seemed as if a rough hand had in some way destroyed the web of my thought. Poetry in the writing is like red hot glass before the master-blower has fashioned it into birds and trees and strange fantastic shapes. A draught, caused by the opening of a door may distort it. But at present I am engaged upon more important work. I am modelling a vessel not of fine-spun glass, but of molten gold."
"You make me exceedingly anxious to know what you have in store for us. It seems to me you have reached a point where even you can no longer surpass yourself."
Reginald smiled. "Your praise is too generous, yet it warms like sunshine. I will confess that my conception is unique. It combines with the ripeness of my technique the freshness of a second spring."
Ernest was bubbling with anticipated delights. His soul responded to Reginald's touch as a harp to the winds. "When," he cried, "shall we be privileged to see it?"
Reginald's eyes were already straying back to his writing table. "If the gods are propitious," he remarked, "I shall complete it to-night. To-morrow is my reception, and I have half promised to read it then."
"Perhaps I shall be in the position soon to let you see my play."
"Let us hope so," Reginald replied absent-mindedly. The egotism of the artist had once more chained him to his work.
That night a brilliant crowd had gathered in Reginald Clarke's house. From the studio and the adjoining salon arose a continual murmur of well-tuned voices. On bare white throats jewels shone as if in each a soul were imprisoned, and voluptuously rustled the silk that clung to the fair slim forms of its bearers in an undulating caress. Subtle perfumes emanated from the hair and the hands of syren women, commingling with the soft plump scent of their flesh. Fragrant tapers, burning in precious crystal globules stained with exquisite colours, sprinkled their shimmering light over the fashionable assemblage and lent a false radiance to the faces of the men, while in the hair and the jewels of the women each ray seemed to dance like an imp with its mate.
A seat like a throne, covered with furs of tropic beasts of prey, stood in one corner of the room in the full glare of the light, waiting for the monarch to come. Above were arranged with artistic raffinement weird oriental draperies, resembling a crimson canopy in the total effect. Chattering visitors were standing in groups, or had seated themselves on the divans and curiously-fashioned chairs that were scattered in seeming disorder throughout the salon. There were critics and writers and men of the world. Everybody who was anybody and a little bigger than somebody else was holding court in his own small circle of enthusiastic admirers. The Bohemian element was subdued, but not entirely lacking. The magic of Reginald Clarke's name made stately dames blind to the presence of some individuals whom they would have passed on the street without recognition.
Ernest surveyed this gorgeous assembly with the absent look of a sleep-walker. Not that his sensuous soul was unsusceptible to the atmosphere of culture and corruption that permeated the whole, nor to the dazzling colour effects that tantalised while they delighted the eye. But to-night they shrivelled into insignificance before the splendour of his inner vision. A radiant dreamland palace, his play, had risen from the night of inchoate thought. It was wonderful, it was real, and needed for its completion only the detail of actual construction. And now the characters were hovering in the recesses of his brain, were yearning to leave that many-winded labyrinth to become real beings of paper and ink. He would probably have tarried overlong in this fanciful mansion, had not the reappearance of an unexpected guest broken his reverie.
"Jack!" he exclaimed in surprise, "I thought you a hundred miles away from here."
"That shows that you no longer care for me," Jack playfully answered. "When our friendship was young, you always had a presentiment of my presence."
"Ah, perhaps I had. But tell me, where do you hail from?"
"Clarke called me up on the telephone—long-distance, you know. I suppose it was meant as a surprise for you. And you certainly looked surprised—not even pleasantly. I am really head-over-heels at work. But you know how it is. Sometimes a little imp whispers into my ears daring me to do a thing which I know is foolish. But what of it? My legs are strong enough not to permit my follies to overtake me."
"It was certainly good of you to come. In fact, you make me very glad. I feel that I need you to-night—I don't know why. The feeling came suddenly—suddenly as you. I only know I need you. How long can you stay?"
"I must leave you to-morrow morning. I have to hustle somewhat. You know my examinations are taking place in a day or two and I've got to cram up a lot of things."
"Still," remarked Ernest, "your visit will repay you for the loss of time. Clarke will read to us to-night his masterpiece."
"What is it?"
"I don't know. I only know it's the real thing. It's worth all the wisdom bald-headed professors may administer to you in concentrated doses at five thousand a year."
"Come now," Jack could not help saying, "is your memory giving way? Don't you remember your own days in college—especially the mathematical examinations? You know that your marks came always pretty near the absolute zero."
"Jack," cried Ernest in honest indignation, "not the last time. The last time I didn't flunk."
"No, because your sonnet on Cartesian geometry roused even the math-fiend to compassion. And don't you remember Professor Squeeler, whose heart seemed to leap with delight whenever he could tell you that, in spite of incessant toil on your part, he had again flunked you in physics with fifty-nine and a half per cent.?"
"And he wouldn't raise the mark to sixty! God forgive him,—I cannot."
Here their exchange of reminiscences was interrupted. There was a stir. The little potentates of conversation hastened to their seats, before their minions had wholly deserted them.
The king was moving to his throne!
Assuredly Reginald Clarke had the bearing of a king. Leisurely he took his seat under the canopy.
A hush fell on the audience; not a fan stirred as he slowly unfolded his manuscript.
The music of Reginald Clarke's intonation captivated every ear. Voluptuously, in measured cadence, it rose and fell; now full and strong like the sound of an organ, now soft and clear like the tinkling of bells. His voice detracted by its very tunefulness from what he said. The powerful spell charmed even Ernest's accustomed ear. The first page gracefully glided from Reginald's hand to the carpet before the boy dimly realised that he was intimately familiar with every word that fell from Reginald's lips. When the second page slipped with seeming carelessness from the reader's hand, a sudden shudder ran through the boy's frame. It was as if an icy hand had gripped his heart. There could be no doubt of it. This was more than mere coincidence. It was plagiarism. He wanted to cry out. But the room swam before his eyes. Surely he must be dreaming. It was a dream. The faces of the audience, the lights, Reginald, Jack—all phantasmagoria of a dream.
Perhaps he had been ill for a long time. Perhaps Clarke was reading the play for him. He did not remember having written it. But he probably had fallen sick after its completion. What strange pranks our memories will play us! But no! He was not dreaming, and he had not been ill.
He could endure the horrible uncertainty no longer. His overstrung nerves must find relaxation in some way or break with a twang. He turned to his friend who was listening with rapt attention.
"Jack, Jack!" he whispered.
"What is it?"
"That is my play!"
"You mean that you inspired it?"
"No, I have written it, or rather, was going to write it."
"Wake up, Ernest! You are mad!"
"No, in all seriousness. It is mine. I told you—don't you remember—when we returned from Coney Island—that I was writing a play."
"Ah, but not this play."
"Yes, this play. I conceived it, I practically wrote it."
"The more's the pity that Clarke had preconceived it."
"But it is mine!"
"Did you tell him a word about it?"
"No, to be sure."
"Did you leave the manuscript in your room?"
"I had, in fact, not written a line of it. No, I had not begun the actual writing."
"Why should a man of Clarke's reputation plagiarise your plays, written or unwritten?"
"I can see no reason. But—"
For already this whispered conversation had elicited a look like a stab from a lady before them.
Ernest held fast to the edge of a chair. He must cling to some reality, or else drift rudderless in a dim sea of vague apprehensions.
Or was Jack right?
Was his mind giving way? No! No! No! There must be a monstrous secret somewhere, but what matter? Did anything matter? He had called on his mate like a ship lost in the fog. For the first time he had not responded. He had not understood. The bitterness of tears rose to the boy's eyes.
Above it all, melodiously, ebbed and flowed the rich accents of Reginald Clarke.
Ernest listened to the words of his own play coming from the older man's mouth. The horrible fascination of the scene held him entranced. He saw the creations of his mind pass in review before him, as a man might look upon the face of his double grinning at him from behind a door in the hideous hours of night.
They were all there! The mad king. The subtle-witted courtiers. The sombre-hearted Prince. The Queen-Mother who had loved a jester better than her royal mate, and the fruit of their shameful alliance, the Princess Marigold, a creature woven of sunshine and sin.
Swiftly the action progressed. Shadows of impending death darkened the house of the King. In the horrible agony of the rack the old jester confessed. Stripped of his cap and bells, crowned with a wreath of blood, he looked so pathetically funny that the Princess Marigold could not help laughing between her tears.
The Queen stood there all trembling and pale. Without a complaint she saw her lover die. The executioner's sword smote the old man's head straight from the trunk. It rolled at the feet of the King, who tossed it to Marigold. The little Princess kissed it and covered the grinning horror with her yellow veil.
The last words died away.
There was no applause. Only silence. All were stricken with the dread that men feel in the house of God or His awful presence in genius.
But the boy lay back in his chair. The cold sweat had gathered on his brow and his temples throbbed. Nature had mercifully clogged his head with blood. The rush of it drowned the crying voice of the nerves, deadening for a while both consciousness and pain.
Somehow the night had passed—somehow in bitterness, in anguish. But it had passed.
Ernest's lips were parched and sleeplessness had left its trace in the black rings under the eyes, when the next morning he confronted Reginald in the studio.
Reginald was sitting at the writing-table in his most characteristic pose, supporting his head with his hand and looking with clear piercing eyes searchingly at the boy.
"Yes," he observed, "it's a most curious psychical phenomenon."
"You cannot imagine how real it all seemed to me."
The boy spoke painfully, dazed, as if struck by a blow.
"Even now it is as if something has gone from me, some struggling thought that I cannot—cannot remember."
Reginald regarded him as a physical experimenter might look upon the subject of a particularly baffling mental disease.
"You must not think, my boy, that I bear you any malice for your extraordinary delusion. Before Jack went away he gave me an exact account of all that has happened. Divers incidents recurred to him from which it appears that, at various times in the past, you have been on the verge of a nervous collapse."
A nervous collapse! What was the use of this term but a euphemism for insanity?
"Do not despair, dear child," Reginald caressingly remarked. "Your disorder is not hopeless, not incurable. Such crises come to every man who writes. It is the tribute we pay to the Lords of Song. The minnesinger of the past wrote with his heart's blood; but we moderns dip our pen into the sap of our nerves. We analyse life, love art—and the dissecting knife that we use on other men's souls finally turns against ourselves.
"But what shall a man do? Shall he sacrifice art to hygiene and surrender the one attribute that makes him chiefest of created things? Animals, too, think. Some walk on two legs. But introspection differentiates man from the rest. Shall we yield up the sweet consciousness of self that we derive from the analysis of our emotion, for the contentment of the bull that ruminates in the shade of a tree or the healthful stupidity of a mule?"
"But what shall a man do?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell. Mathematics offers definite problems that admit of a definite solution. Life states its problems with less exactness and offers for each a different solution. One and one are two to-day and to-morrow. Psychical values, on each manipulation, will yield a different result. Still, your case is quite clear. You have overworked yourself in the past, mentally and emotionally. You have sown unrest, and must not be surprised if neurasthenia is the harvest thereof."
"Do you think—that I should go to some sanitarium?" the boy falteringly asked.
"God forbid! Go to the seashore, somewhere where you can sleep and play. Take your body along, but leave your brain behind—at least do not take more of it with you than is necessary. The summer season in Atlantic City has just begun. There, as everywhere in American society, you will be much more welcome if you come without brains."
Reginald's half-bantering tone reassured Ernest a little. Timidly he dared approach once more the strange event that had wrought such havoc with his nervous equilibrium.
"How do you account for my strange obsession—one might almost call it a mania?"
"If it could be accounted for it would not be strange."
"Can you suggest no possible explanation?"
"Perhaps a stray leaf on my desk a few indications of the plot, a remark—who knows? Perhaps thought-matter is floating in the air. Perhaps—but we had better not talk of it now. It would needlessly excite you."
"You are right," answered Ernest gloomily, "let us not talk of it. But whatever may be said, it is a marvellous play."
"You flatter me. There is nothing in it that you may not be able to do equally well—some day."
"Ah, no," the boy replied, looking up to Reginald with admiration. "You are the master."
Lazily Ernest stretched his limbs on the beach of Atlantic City. The sea, that purger of sick souls, had washed away the fever and the fret of the last few days. The wind was in his hair and the spray was in his breath, while the rays of the sun kissed his bare arms and legs. He rolled over in the glittering sand in the sheer joy of living.
Now and then a wavelet stole far into the beach, as if to caress him, but pined away ere it could reach its goal. It was as if the enamoured sea was stretching out its arms to him. Who knows, perhaps through the clear water some green-eyed nymph, or a young sea-god with the tang of the sea in his hair, was peering amorously at the boy's red mouth. The people of the deep love the red warm blood of human kind. It is always the young that they lure to their watery haunts, never the shrivelled limbs that totter shivering to the grave.
Such fancies came to Ernest as he lay on the shore in his bathing attire, happy, thoughtless,—animal.
The sun and the sea seemed to him two lovers vying for his favor. The sudden change of environment had brought complete relaxation and had quieted his rebellious, assertive soul. He was no longer a solitary unit but one with wind and water, herb and beach and shell. Almost voluptuously his hand toyed with the hot sand that glided caressingly through his fingers and buried his breast and shoulder under its glittering burden.
A summer girl who passed lowered her eyes coquettishly. He watched her without stirring. Even to open his mouth or to smile would have seemed too much exertion.
Thus he lay for hours. When at length noon drew nigh, it cost him a great effort of will to shake off his drowsy mood and exchange his airy costume for the conventional habilaments of the dining-room.
He had taken lodgings in a fashionable hotel. An unusual stroke of good luck, hack-work that paid outrageously well, had made it possible for him to idle for a time without a thought of the unpleasant necessity of making money.
One single article to which he signed his name only with reluctance had brought to him more gear than a series of golden sonnets.
"Surely," he thought, "the social revolution ought to begin from above. What right has the bricklayer to grumble when he receives for a week's work almost more than I for a song?"
Thus soliloquising, he reached the dining-room. The scene that unfolded itself before him was typical—the table over-loaded, the women over-dressed.
The luncheon was already in full course when he came. He mumbled an apology and seated himself on the only remaining chair next to a youth who reminded him of a well-dressed dummy. With slight weariness his eyes wandered in all directions for more congenial faces when they were arrested by a lady on the opposite side of the table. She was clad in a silk robe with curiously embroidered net-work that revealed a nervous and delicate throat. The rich effect of the net-work was relieved by the studied simplicity with which her heavy chestnut-colored hair was gathered in a single knot. Her face was turned away from him, but there was something in the carriage of her head that struck him as familiar. When at last she looked him in the face, the glass almost fell from his hand: it was Ethel Brandenbourg. She seemed to notice his embarrassment and smiled. When she opened her lips to speak, he knew by the haunting sweetness of the voice that he was not mistaken.
"Tell me," she said wistfully, "you have forgotten me? They all have."
He hastened to assure her that he had not forgotten her. He recollected now that he had first been introduced to her in Walkham's house some years ago, when a mere college boy, he had been privileged to attend one of that master's famous receptions. She had looked quite resolute and very happy then, not at all like the woman who had stared so strangely at Reginald in the Broadway restaurant.
He regarded this encounter as very fortunate. He knew so much of her personal history that it almost seemed to him as if they had been intimate for years. She, too, felt on familiar ground with him. Neither as much as whispered the name of Reginald Clarke. Yet it was he, and the knowledge of what he was to them, that linked their souls with a common bond.
It was the third day after their meeting. Hour by hour their intimacy had increased. Ethel was sitting in a large wicker-chair. She restlessly fingered her parasol, mechanically describing magic circles in the sand. Ernest lay at her feet. With his knees clasped between his hands, he gazed into her eyes.
"Why are you trying so hard to make love to me?" the woman asked, with the half-amused smile with which the Eve near thirty receives the homage of a boy. There is an element of insincerity in that smile, but it is a weapon of defence against love's artillery.
Sometimes, indeed, the pleading in the boy's eyes and the cry of the blood pierces the woman's smiling superiority. She listens, loves and loses.
Ethel Brandenbourg was listening, but the idea of love had not yet entered into her mind. Her interest in Ernest was due in part to his youth and the trembling in his voice when he spoke of love. But what probably attracted her most powerfully was the fact that he intimately knew the man who still held her woman's heart in the hollow of his hand. It was half in play, therefore, that she had asked him that question.
Why did he make love to her? He did not know. Perhaps it was the irresistible desire to be petted which young poets share with domesticated cats. But what should he tell her? Polite platitudes were out of place between them.
Besides he knew the penalty of all tender entanglements. Women treat love as if it were an extremely tenuous wire that can be drawn out indefinitely. This is a very expensive process. It costs us the most precious, the only irretrievable thing in the universe—time. And to him time was song; for money he did not care. The Lord had hallowed his lips with rhythmic speech; only in the intervals of his singing might he listen to the voice of his heart—strangest of all watches, that tells the time not by minutes and hours, but by the coming and going of love.
The woman beside him seemed to read his thoughts.
"Child, child," she said, "why will you toy with love? Like Jehovah, he is a jealous god, and nothing but the whole heart can placate him. Woe to the woman who takes a poet for a lover. I admit it is fascinating, but it is playing va banque. In fact, it is fatal. Art or love will come to harm. No man can minister equally to both. A genuine poet is incapable of loving a woman."
"Pshaw! You exaggerate. Of course, there is a measure of truth in what you say, but it is only one side of the truth, and the truth, you know, is always Janus-faced. In fact, it often has more than two faces. I can assure you that I have cared deeply for the women to whom my love-poetry was written. And you will not deny that it is genuine."
"God forbid! Only you have been using the wrong preposition. You should have said that it was written at them."
Ernest stared at her in child-like wonder.
"By Jove! you are too devilishly clever!" he exclaimed.
After a little silence he said not without hesitation: "And do you apply your theory to all artists, or only to us makers of rhyme?"
"To all," she replied.
He looked at her questioningly.
"Yes," she said, with a new sadness in her voice, "I, too, have paid the price."
"That was the sacrifice."
"Perhaps you have chosen the better part," Ernest said without conviction.
"No," she replied, "my tribute was brought in vain."
This she said calmly, but Ernest knew that her words were of tragic import.
"You love him still?" he observed simply.
Ethel made no reply. Sadness clouded her face like a veil or like a grey mist over the face of the waters. Her eyes went out to the sea, following the sombre flight of the sea-mews.
In that moment he could have taken her in his arms and kissed her with infinite tenderness.
But tenderness between man and woman is like a match in a powder-magazine. The least provocation, and an amorous explosion will ensue, tumbling down the card-houses of platonic affection. If he yielded to the impulse of the moment, the wine of the springtide would set their blood afire, and from the flames within us there is no escape.
"Come, come," she said, "you do not love me."
"Ah!" she cried triumphantly, "how many sonnets would you give for me? If you were a usurer in gold instead of in rhyme, I would ask how many dollars. But it is unjust to pay in a coin that we value little. To a man starving in gold mines, a piece of bread weighs more than all the treasures of the earth. To you, I warrant your poems are the standard of appreciation. How many would you give for me? One, two, three?"
"Because you think love would repay you with compound interest," she observed merrily.
And when love turns to laughter the danger is passed for the moment.
Thus three weeks passed without apparent change in their relations. Ernest possessed a personal magnetism that, always emanating from him, was felt most deeply when withdrawn. He was at all times involuntarily exerting his power, which she ever resisted, always on the alert, always warding off.
When at last pressure of work made his immediate departure for New York imperative, he had not apparently gained the least ground. But Ethel knew in her heart that she was fascinated, if not in love. The personal fascination was supplemented by a motherly feeling toward Ernest that, sensuous in essence, was in itself not far removed from love. She struggled bravely and with external success against her emotions, never losing sight of the fact that twenty and thirty are fifty.
Increasingly aware of her own weakness, she constantly attempted to lead the conversation into impersonal channels, speaking preferably of his work.
"Tell me," she said, negligently fanning herself, "what new inspiration have you drawn from your stay at the seaside?"
"Why," he exclaimed enthusiastically, "volumes and volumes of it. I shall write the great novel of my life after I am once more quietly installed at Riverside Drive."
"The great American novel?" she rejoined.
"Who will be your hero—Clarke?"
There was a slight touch of malice in her words, or rather in the pause between the penultimate word and the last. Ernest detected its presence, and knew that her love for Reginald was dead. Stiff and cold it lay in her heart's chamber—beside how many others?—all emboxed in the coffin of memory.
"No," he replied after a while, a little piqued by her suggestion, "Clarke is not the hero. What makes you think that he casts a spell on everything I do?"
"Dear child," she replied, "I know him. He cannot fail to impress his powerful personality upon all with whom he comes in contact, to the injury of their intellectual independence. Moreover, he is so brilliant and says everything so much better than anybody else, that by his very splendor he discourages effort in others. At best his influence will shape your development according to the tenets of his mind—curious, subtle and corrupted. You will become mentally distorted, like one of those hunchback Japanese trees, infinitely wrinkled and infinitely grotesque, whose laws of growth are not determined by nature, but by the diseased imagination of the East."
"I am no weakling," Ernest asserted, "and your picture of Clarke is altogether out of perspective. His splendid successes are to me a source of constant inspiration. We have some things in common, but I realise that it is along entirely different lines that success will come to me. He has never sought to influence me, in fact, I never received the smallest suggestion from him." Here the Princess Marigold seemed to peer at him through the veil of the past, but he waved her aside. "As for my story," he continued, "you need not go so far out of your way to find the leading character?"
"Who can it be?" Ethel remarked, with a merry twinkle, "You?"
"Ethel," he said sulkingly, "be serious. You know that it is you."
"I am immensely flattered," she replied. "Really, nothing pleases me better than to be immortalised in print, since I have little hope nowadays of perpetuating my name by virtue of pencil or brush. I have been put into novels before and am consumed with curiosity to hear the plot of yours."
"If you don't mind, I had rather not tell you just yet," Ernest said. "It's going to be called Leontina—that's you. But all depends on the treatment. You know it doesn't matter much what you say so long as you say it well. That's what counts. At any rate, any indication of the plot at this stage would be decidedly inadequate."
"I think you are right," she ventured. "By all means choose your own time to tell me. Let's talk of something else. Have you written anything since your delightful book of verse last spring? Surely now is your singing season. By the time we are thirty the springs of pure lyric passion are usually exhausted."
Ethel's inquiry somehow startled him. In truth, he could find no satisfactory answer. A remark relative to his play—Clarke's play—rose to the threshold of his lips, but he almost bit his tongue as soon as he realised that the strange delusion which had possessed him that night still dominated the undercurrents of his cerebration. No, he had accomplished but little during the last few months—at least, by way of creative literature. So he replied that he had made money. "That is something," he said. "Besides, who can turn out a masterpiece every week? An artist's brain is not a machine, and in the respite from creative work I have gathered strength for the future. But," he added, slightly annoyed, "you are not listening."
His exclamation brought her back from the train of thoughts that his words had suggested. For in his reasoning she had recognised the same arguments that she had hourly repeated to herself in defence of her inactivity when she was living under the baneful influence of Reginald Clarke. Yes, baneful; for the first time she dared to confess it to herself. In a flash the truth dawned upon her that it was not her love alone, but something else, something irresistable and very mysterious, that had dried up the well of creation in her. Could it be that the same power was now exerting its influence upon the struggling soul of this talented boy? Rack her brains as she might, she could not definitely formulate her apprehensions and a troubled look came into her eyes.
"Ethel," the boy repeated, impatiently, "why are you not listening? Do you realise that I must leave you in half an hour?"
She looked at him with deep tenderness. Something like a tear lent a soft radiance to her large child-like eyes.
Ernest saw it and was profoundly moved. In that moment he loved her passionately.
"Foolish boy," she said softly; then, lowering her voice to a whisper: "You may kiss me before you go."
His lips gently touched hers, but she took his head between her hands and pressed her mouth upon his in a long kiss.
Ernest drew back a little awkwardly. He had not been kissed like this before.
"Poet though you are," Ethel whispered, "you have not yet learned to kiss."
She was deeply agitated when she noticed that his hand was fumbling for the watch in his vest-pocket. She suddenly released him, and said, a little hurt: "No, you must not miss your train. Go by all means."
Vainly Ernest remonstrated with her.
"Go to him," she said, and again, "go to him."
With a heavy heart the boy obeyed. He waved his hat to her once more from below, and then rapidly disappeared in the crowd. For a moment strange misgivings cramped her heart, and something within her called out to him: "Do not go! Do not return to that house." But no sound issued from her lips. Worldly wisdom had sealed them, had stifled the inner voice. And soon the boy's golden head was swallowed up in the distance.
While the train sped to New York, Ethel Brandenbourg was the one object engaging Ernest's mind. He still felt the pressure of her lips upon his, and his nostrils dilated at the thought of the fragrance of her hair brushing against his forehead.
But the moment his foot touched the ferry-boat that was to take him to Manhattan, the past three weeks were, for the time being at least, completely obliterated from his memory. All his other interests that he had suppressed in her company because she had no part in them, came rushing back to him. He anticipated with delight his meeting with Reginald Clarke. The personal attractiveness of the man had never seemed so powerful to Ernest as when he had not heard from him for some time. Reginald's letters were always brief. "Professional writers," he was wont to say, "cannot afford to put fine feeling into their private correspondence. They must turn it into copy." He longed to sit with the master in the studio when the last rays of the daylight were tremulously falling through the stained window, and to discuss far into the darkening night philosophies young and old. He longed for Reginald's voice, his little mannerisms, the very perfume of his rooms.
There also was a deluge of letters likely to await him in his apartment. For in his hurried departure he had purposely left his friends in the dark as to his whereabouts. Only to Jack he had dropped a little note the day after his meeting with Ethel.
He earnestly hoped to find Reginald at home, though it was well nigh ten o'clock in the evening, and he cursed the "rapid transit" for its inability to annihilate space and time. It is indeed disconcerting to think how many months, if not years, of our earthly sojourn the dwellers in cities spend in transportation conveyances that must be set down as a dead loss in the ledger of life. A nervous impatience against things material overcame Ernest in the subway. It is ever the mere stupid obstacle of matter that weights down the wings of the soul and prevents it from soaring upward to the sun.
When at last he had reached the house, he learned from the hall-boy that Clarke had gone out. Ruffled in temper he entered his rooms and went over his mail. There were letters from editors with commissions that he could not afford to reject. Everywhere newspapers and magazines opened their yawning mouths to swallow up what time he had. He realised at once that he would have to postpone the writing of his novel for several weeks, if not longer.
Among the letters was one from Jack. It bore the postmark of a little place in the Adirondacks where he was staying with his parents. Ernest opened the missive not without hesitation. On reading and rereading it the fine lines on his forehead, that would some day deepen into wrinkles, became quite pronounced and a look of displeasure darkened his face. Something was wrong with Jack, a slight change that defied analysis. Their souls were out of tune. It might only be a passing disturbance; perhaps it was his own fault. It pained him, nevertheless. Somehow it seemed of late that Jack was no longer able to follow the vagaries of his mind. Only one person in the world possessed a similar mental vision, only one seemed to understand what he said and what he left unsaid. Reginald Clarke, being a man and poet, read in his soul as in an open book. Ethel might have understood, had not love, like a cloud, laid itself between her eyes and the page.
It was with exultation that Ernest heard near midnight the click of Reginald's key in the door. He found him unchanged, completely, radiantly himself. Reginald possessed the psychic power of undressing the soul, of seeing it before him in primal nakedness. Although no word was said of Ethel Brandenbourg except the mere mention of her presence in Atlantic City, Ernest intuitively knew that Reginald was aware of the transformation that absence had wrought in him. In the presence of this man he could be absolutely himself, without shame or fear of mis-understanding; and by a strange metamorphosis, all his affection for Ethel and Jack went out for the time being to Reginald Clarke.
The next day Ernest wrote a letter of more or less superficial tenderness to Ethel. She had wounded his pride by proving victorious in the end over his passion and hers; besides, he was in the throes of work. When after the third day no answer came, he was inclined to feel aggrieved. It was plain now that she had not cared for him in the least, but had simply played with him for lack of another toy. A flush of shame rose to his cheeks at the thought. He began to analyse his own emotions, and stunned, if not stabbed, his passion step by step. Work was calling to him. It was that which gave life its meaning, not the love of a season. How far away, how unreal, she now seemed to him. Yes, she was right, he had not cared deeply; and his novel, too, would be written only at her. It was the heroine of his story that absorbed his interest, not the living prototype.
Once in a conversation with Reginald he touched upon the subject. Reginald held that modern taste no longer permitted even the photographer to portray life as it is, but insisted upon an individual visualisation. "No man," he remarked, "was ever translated bodily into fiction. In contradiction to life, art is a process of artificial selection."
Bearing in mind this motive, Ernest went to work to mould from the material in hand a new Ethel, more real than life. Unfortunately he found little time to devote to his novel. It was only when, after a good day's work, a pile of copy for a magazine lay on his desk, that he could think of concentrating his mind upon "Leontina." The result was that when he went to bed his imagination was busy with the plan of his book, and the creatures of his own brain laid their fingers on his eyelid so that he could not sleep.
When at last sheer weariness overcame him, his mind was still at work, not in orderly sequence but along trails monstrous and grotesque. Hobgoblins seemed to steal through the hall, and leering incubi oppressed his soul with terrible burdens. In the morning he awoke unrested. The tan vanished from his face and little lines appeared in the corners of his mouth. It was as if his nervous vitality were sapped from him in some unaccountable way. He became excited, hysterical. Often at night when he wrote his pot-boilers for the magazines, fear stood behind his seat, and only the buzzing of the elevator outside brought him back to himself.
In one of his morbid moods he wrote a sonnet which he showed to Reginald after the latter's return from a short trip out of town. Reginald read it, looking at the boy with a curious, lurking expression.
O gentle Sleep, turn not thy face away, But place thy finger on my brow, and take All burthens from me and all dreams that ache; Upon mine eyes a cooling balsam lay, Seeing I am aweary of the day. But, lo! thy lips are ashen and they quake. What spectral vision sees thou that can shake Thy sweet composure, and thy heart dismay? Perhaps some murderer's cruel eye agleam Is fixed upon me, or some monstrous dream Might bring such fearful guilt upon the head Of my unvigilant soul as would arouse The Borgian snake from her envenomed bed, Or startle Nero in his golden house.
"Good stuff," Reginald remarked, laying down the manuscript; "when did you write it?"
"The night when you were out of town," Ernest rejoined.
"I see," Reginald replied.
There was something startling in his intonation that at once aroused Ernest's attention.
"What do you see?" he asked quickly.
"Nothing," Reginald replied, with immovable calm, "only that your state of nerves is still far from satisfactory."
After Ernest's departure Ethel Brandenbourg's heart was swaying hither and thither in a hurricane of conflicting feelings. Before she had time to gain an emotional equilibrium, his letter had hurled her back into chaos. A false ring somewhere in Ernest's words, reechoing with an ever-increasing volume of sound, stifled the voice of love. His jewelled sentences glittered, but left her cold. They lacked that spontaneity which renders even simple and hackeneyed phrases wonderful and unique. Ethel clearly realised that her hold upon the boy's imagination had been a fleeting midsummer night's charm, and that a word from Reginald's lips had broken the potency of her spell. She almost saw the shadow of Reginald's visage hovering over Ernest's letter and leering at her from between the lines in sinister triumph. Finally reason came and whispered to her that it was extremely unwise to give her heart into the keeping of a boy. His love, she knew, would have been exacting, irritating at times. He would have asked her to sympathise with every phase of his life, and would have expected active interest on her part in much that she had done with long ago. Thus, untruth would have stolen into her life and embittered it. When mates are unequal, Love must paint its cheeks and, in certain moods at least, hide its face under a mask. Its lips may be honeyed, but it brings fret and sorrow in its train.
These things she told herself over and over again while she penned a cool and calculating answer to Ernest's letter. She rewrote it many times, and every time it became more difficult to reply. At last she put her letter aside for a few days, and when it fell again into her hand it seemed so unnatural and strained that she destroyed it.
Thus several weeks had passed, and Ernest no longer exclusively occupied her mind when, one day early in September, while glancing over a magazine, she came upon his name in the table of contents. Once more she saw the boy's wistful face before her, and a trembling something stirred in her heart. Her hand shook as she cut the pages, and a mist of tears clouded her vision as she attempted to read his poem. It was a piece of sombre brilliance. Like black-draped monks half crazed with mystic devotion, the poet's thoughts flitted across the page. It was the wail of a soul that feels reason slipping from it and beholds madness rise over its life like a great pale moon. A strange unrest emanated from it and took possession of her. And again, with an insight that was prophetic, she distinctly recognised behind the vague fear that had haunted the poet the figure of Reginald Clarke.
A half-forgotten dream, struggling to consciousness, staggered her by its vividness. She saw Clarke as she had seen him in days gone by, grotesquely transformed into a slimy sea-thing, whose hungry mouths shut sucking upon her and whose thousand tentacles encircled her form. She closed her eyes in horror at the reminiscence. And in that moment it became clear to her that she must take into her hands the salvation of Ernest Fielding from the clutches of the malign power that had mysteriously enveloped his life.
The summer was brief, and already by the middle of September many had returned to the pleasures of urban life. Ethel was among the first-comers; for, after her resolve to enter the life of the young poet once more, it would have been impossible for her to stay away from the city much longer. Her plan was all ready. Before attempting to see Ernest she would go to meet Reginald and implore him to free the boy from his hideous spell. An element of curiosity unconsciously entered her determination. When, years ago, she and Clarke had parted, the man had seemed, for once, greatly disturbed and had promised, in his agitation, that some day he would communicate to her what would exonerate him in her eyes. She had answered that all words between them were purposeless, and that she hoped never to see his face again. The experience that the years had brought to her, instead of elucidating the mystery of Reginald's personality, had, on the contrary, made his behaviour appear more and more unaccountable. She had more than once caught herself wishing to meet him again and to analyse dispassionately the puzzling influences he had exerted upon her. And she could at last view him dispassionately; there was triumph in that. She was dimly aware that something had passed from her, something by which he had held her, and without which his magnetism was unable to play upon her.
So when Walkham sent her an invitation to one of his artistic "at homes" she accepted, in the hope of meeting Reginald. It was his frequentation of Walkham's house that had for several years effectively barred her foot from crossing the threshold. It was with a very strange feeling she greeted the many familiar faces at Walkham's now; and when, toward ten o'clock, Reginald entered, politely bowing in answer to the welcome from all sides, her heart beat in her like a drum. But she calmed herself, and, catching his eye, so arranged it that early in the evening they met in an alcove of the drawing-room.
"It was inevitable," Reginald said. "I expected it."
"Yes," she replied, "we were bound to meet."
Like a great rush of water, memory came back to her. He was still horribly fascinating as of old—only she was no longer susceptible to his fascination. He had changed somewhat in those years. The lines about his mouth had grown harder and a steel-like look had come into his eyes. Only for a moment, as he looked at her, a flash of tenderness seemed to come back to them. Then he said, with a touch of sadness: "Why should the first word between us be a lie?"
Ethel made no answer.
Reginald looked at her half in wonder and said: "And is your love for the boy so great that it overcame your hate of me?"
Ah, he knew! She winced.
"He has told you?"
"Not a word."
There was something superhuman in his power of penetration. Why should she wear a mask before him, when his eyes, like the eyes of God, pierced to the core of her being?
"No," she replied, "it is not love, but compassion for him."
"Yes, compassion for your victim."
"I am all ear."
"I implore you."
"You have ruined one life."
He raised his eyebrows derogatively.
"Yes," she continued fiercely, "ruined it! Is not that enough?"
"I have never wilfully ruined any one's life."
"You have ruined mine."
"How else shall I explain your conduct?"
"I warned you."
"Warning, indeed! The warning that the snake gives to the sparrow helpless under its gaze."
"Ah, but who tells you that the snake is to blame? Is it not rather the occult power that prescribes with blood on brazen scroll the law of our being?"
"This is no solace to the sparrow. But whatever may be said, let us drop the past. Let us consider the present. I beg of you, leave this boy—let him develop without your attempting to stifle the life in him or impressing upon it the stamp of your alien mind."
"Ethel," he protested, "you are unjust. If you knew—" Then an idea seemed to take hold of him. He looked at her curiously.
"What if I knew?" she asked.
"You shall know," he said, simply. "Are you strong?"
"Strong to withstand anything at your hand. There is nothing that you can give me, nothing that you can take away."
"No," he remarked, "nothing. Yes, you have changed. Still, when I look upon you, the ghosts of the past seem to rise like live things."