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 mediæval 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 décolleté 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 roué.”
“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.
TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR CHAPTERS 11 – 21 OF
George Sylvester Viereck’s
THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE