Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
They met the next morning with no sign in the manner of either that there had been a drawn battle, that there was an armed truce. She knew that he, like herself, was thinking of nothing else. But until he had devised some way of certainly conquering her he would wait, and watch, and pretend that he was satisfied with matters as they were. The longer she reflected the less uneasy she became--as to immediate danger. In Paris the methods of violence he might have been tempted to try in New York were out of the question. What remained? He must realize that threats to expose her would be futile; also, he must feel vulnerable, himself, to that kind of attack--a feeling that would act as a restraint, even though he might appreciate that she was the sort of person who could not in any circumstances resort to it. He had not upon her a single one of the holds a husband has upon a wife. True, he could break with her. But she must appreciate how easy it would now be for her in this capital of the idle rich to find some other man glad to "protect" a woman so expert at gratifying man's vanity of being known as the proprietor of a beautiful and fashionable woman. She had discovered how, in the aristocracy of European wealth, an admired mistress was as much a necessary part of the grandeur of great nobles, great financiers, great manufacturers, or merchants, as wife, as heir, as palace, as equipage, as chef, as train of secretaries and courtiers. She knew how deeply it would cut, to find himself without his show piece that made him the envied of men and the desired of women. Also, she knew that she had an even stronger hold upon him--that she appealed to him as no other woman ever had, that she had become for him a tenacious habit. She was not afraid that he would break with her. But she could not feel secure; in former days she had seen too far into the mazes of that Italian mind of his, she knew too well how patient, how relentless, how unforgetting he was. She would have taken murder into account as more than a possibility but for his intense and intelligent selfishness; he would not risk his life or his liberty; he would not deprive himself of his keenest pleasure. He was resourceful; but in the circumstances what resources were there for him to draw upon?
When he began to press upon her more money than ever, and to buy her costly jewelry, she felt still further reassured. Evidently he had been unable to think out any practicable scheme; evidently he was, for the time, taking the course of appeal to her generous instincts, of making her more and more dependent upon his liberality.
Well--was he not right? Love might fail; passion might wane; conscience, aiding self-interest with its usual servility, might overcome the instincts of gratitude. But what power could overcome the loyalty resting upon money interest? No power but that of a longer purse than his. As she was not in the mood to make pretenses about herself to herself, she smiled at this cynical self-measuring. "But I shan't despise myself for being so material," said she to herself, "until I find a genuine case of a woman, respectable or otherwise, who has known poverty and escaped from it, and has then voluntarily given up wealth to go back to it. I should not stay on with him if he were distasteful to me. And that's more than most women can honestly say. Perhaps even I should not stay on if it were not for a silly, weak feeling of obligation--but I can't be sure of that." She had seen too much of men and women preening upon noble disinterested motives when in fact their real motives were the most calculatingly selfish; she preferred doing herself less than justice rather than more.
She had fifty-five thousand francs on deposit at Munroe's--all her very own. She had almost two hundred thousand francs' worth of jewels, which she would be justified in keeping--at least, she hoped she would think so--should there come a break with Freddie. Yet in spite of this substantial prosperity--or was it because of this prosperity?--she abruptly began again to be haunted by the old visions, by warnings of the dangers that beset any human being who has not that paying trade or profession which makes him or her independent--gives him or her the only unassailable independence.
The end with Freddie might be far away. But end, she saw, there would be the day when he would somehow get her in his power and so would drive her to leave him. For she could not again become a slave. Extreme youth, utter inexperience, no knowledge of real freedom--these had enabled her to endure in former days. But she was wholly different now. She could not sink back. Steadily she was growing less and less able to take orders from anyone. This full-grown passion for freedom, this intolerance of the least restraint--how dangerous, if she should find herself in a position where she would have to put up with the caprices of some man or drop down and down!
What real, secure support had she? None. Her building was without solid foundations. Her struggle with Freddie was a revelation and a warning. There were days when, driving about in her luxurious car, she could do nothing but search among the crowds in the streets for the lonely old women in rags, picking and peering along the refuse of the cafes--weazened, warped figures swathed in rags, creeping along, mumbling to themselves, lips folded in and in over toothless gums.
One day Brent saw again the look she often could not keep from her face when that vision of the dance hall in the slums was horrifying her. He said impulsively:
"What is it? Tell me--what is it, Susan?"
It was the first and the last time he ever called her by her only personal name. He flushed deeply. To cover his confusion--and her own--she said in her most frivolous way:
"I was thinking that if I am ever rich I shall have more pairs of shoes and stockings and take care of more orphans than anyone else in the world."
"A purpose! At last a purpose!" laughed he. "Now you will go to work."
Through Gourdain she got a French teacher--and her first woman friend.
The young widow he recommended, a Madame Clelie Deliere, was the most attractive woman she had ever known. She had all the best French characteristics--a good heart, a lively mind, was imaginative yet sensible, had good taste in all things. Like most of the attractive French women, she was not beautiful, but had that which is of far greater importance--charm. She knew not a word of English, and it was perhaps Susan's chief incentive toward working hard at French that she could not really be friends with this fascinating person until she learned to speak her language. Palmer--partly by nature, partly through early experience in the polyglot tenement district of New York--had more aptitude for language than had Susan. But he had been lazy about acquiring French in a city where English is spoken almost universally. With the coming of young Madame Deliere to live in the apartment, he became interested.
It was not a month after her coming when you might have seen at one of the fashionable gay restaurants any evening a party of four--Gourdain was the fourth--talking French almost volubly. Palmer's accent was better than Susan's. She could not--and felt she never could--get the accent of the trans-Alleghany region out of her voice--and so long as that remained she would not speak good French. "But don't let that trouble you," said Clelie. "Your voice is your greatest charm. It is so honest and so human. Of the Americans I have met, I have liked only those with that same tone in their voices."
"But I haven't that accent," said Freddie with raillery.
Madame Clelie laughed. "No--and I do not like you," retorted she. "No one ever did. You do not wish to be liked. You wish to be feared." Her lively brown eyes sparkled and the big white teeth in her generous mouth glistened. "You wish to be feared--and you are feared, Monsieur Freddie."
"It takes a clever woman to know how to flatter with the truth," said he. "Everybody always has been afraid of me--and is--except, of course, my wife."
He was always talking of "my wife" now. The subject so completely possessed his mind that he aired it unconsciously. When she was not around he boasted of "my wife's" skill in the art of dress, of "my wife's" taste, of "my wife's" shrewdness in getting her money's worth. When she was there, he was using the favorite phrase "my wife" this--"my wife" that--"my wife" the other--until it so got on her nerves that she began to wait for it and to wince whenever it came--never a wait of many minutes. At first she thought he was doing this deliberately either to annoy her or in pursuance of some secret deep design. But she soon saw that he was not aware of his inability to keep off the subject or of his obsession for that phrase representing the thing he was intensely wishing and willing--"chiefly," she thought, "because it is something he cannot have." She was amazed at his display of such a weakness. It gave her the chance to learn an important truth about human nature--that self-indulgence soon destroys the strongest nature--and she was witness to how rapidly an inflexible will disintegrates if incessantly applied to an impossibility. When a strong arrogant man, unbalanced by long and successful self-indulgence, hurls himself at an obstruction, either the obstruction yields or the man is destroyed.
One morning early in February, as she was descending from her auto in front of the apartment house, she saw Brent in the doorway. Never had he looked so young or so well. His color was fine, his face had become almost boyish; upon his skin and in his eyes was that gloss of perfect health which until these latter days of scientific hygiene was rarely seen after twenty-five in a woman or after thirty in a man. She gathered in all, to the smallest detail--such as the color of his shirt--with a single quick glance. She knew that he had seen her before she saw him--that he had been observing her. Her happiest friendliest smile made her small face bewitching as she advanced with outstretched hand.
"When did you come?" she asked.
"About an hour ago."
"From the Riviera?"
"No, indeed. From St. Moritz--and skating and skiing and tobogganing. I rather hoped I looked it. Doing those things in that air--it's being born again."
"I felt well till I saw you," said she. "Now I feel dingy and half sick."
He laughed, his glance sweeping her from hat to boots. Certainly his eyes could not have found a more entrancing sight. She was wearing a beautiful dress of golden brown cloth, sable hat, short coat and muff, brown suede boots laced high upon her long slender calves. And when she had descended from the perfect little limousine made to order for her, he had seen a ravishing flutter of lingerie of pale violet silk. The sharp air had brought no color to her cheeks to interfere with the abrupt and fascinating contrast of their pallor with the long crimson bow of her mouth. But her skin seemed transparent and had the clearness of health itself. Everything about her, every least detail, was of Parisian perfection.
"Probably there are not in the world," said he, "so many as a dozen women so well put together as you are. No, not half a dozen. Few women carry the art of dress to the point of genius."
"I see they had only frumps at St. Moritz this season," laughed she.
But he would not be turned aside. "Most of the well dressed women stop short with being simply frivolous in spending so much time at less than perfection--like the army of poets who write pretty good verse, or the swarm of singers who sing pretty well. I've heard of you many times this winter. You are the talk of Paris."
She laughed with frank delight. It was indeed a pleasure to discover that her pains had not been in vain.
"It is always the outsider who comes to the great city to show it its own resources," he went on. "I knew you were going to do this. Still happy?"
But he had taken her by surprise. A faint shadow flitted across her face. "Not so happy, I see."
"You see too much. Won't you lunch with us? We'll have it in about half an hour."
He accepted promptly and they went up together. His glance traveled round the drawing-room; and she knew he had noted all the changes she had made on better acquaintance with her surroundings and wider knowledge of interior furnishing. She saw that he approved, and it increased her good humor. "Are you hurrying through Paris on your way to somewhere else?" she asked.
"No, I stop here--I think--until I sail for America."
"And that will be soon?"
"Perhaps not until July. I have no plans. I've finished a play a woman suggested to me some time ago. And I'm waiting."
A gleam of understanding came into her eyes. There was controlled interest in her voice as she inquired:
"When is it to be produced?"
"When the woman who suggested it is ready to act in it."
"Do I by any chance know her?"
"You used to know her. You will know her again."
She shook her head slowly, a pensive smile hovering about her eyes and lips. "No--not again. I have changed."
"We do not change," said he. "We move, but we do not change. You are the same character you were when you came into the world. And what you were then, that you will be when the curtain falls on the climax of your last act. Your circumstances will change--and your clothes--and your face, hair, figure--but not you."
"Do you believe that?"
"I know it."
She nodded slowly, the violet-gray eyes pensive. "Birds in the strong wind--that's what we are. Driven this way or that--or quite beaten down. But the wind doesn't change sparrow to eagle--or eagle to gull--does it?"
She had removed her coat and was seated on an oval lounge gazing into the open fire. He was standing before it, looking taller and stronger than ever, in a gray lounging suit. A cigarette depended loosely from the corner of his mouth. He said abruptly:
"How are you getting on with your acting?"
She glanced in surprise.
"Gourdain," Brent explained. "He had to talk to somebody about how wonderful you are. So he took to writing me--two huge letters a week--all about you."
"I'm fond of him. And he's fond of Clelie. She's my----"
"I know all," he interrupted. "The tie between them is their fondness for you. Tell me about the acting."
"Oh--Clelie and I have been going to the theater every few days--to help me with French. She is mad about acting, and there's nothing I like better."
"Also, you simply have to have occupation."
She nodded. "I wasn't brought up to fit me for an idler. When I was a child I was taught to keep busy--not at nothing, but at something. Freddie's a lot better at it than I."
"Naturally," said Brent. "You had a home, with order and a system--an old-fashioned American home. He--well, he hadn't."
"Clelie and I go at our make-believe acting quite seriously. We have to--if we're to fool ourselves that it's an occupation."
"Why this anxiety to prove to me that you're not really serious?"
Susan laughed mockingly for answer, and went on:
"You should see us do the two wives in `L'Enigme'--or mother and daughter in that diary scene in `L'Autre Danger'!"
"I must. . . . When are you going to resume your career?"
She rose, strolled toward an open door at one end of the salon, closed it--strolled toward the door into the hall, glanced out, returned without having closed it. She then said:
"Could I study here in Paris?"
Triumph gleamed in his eyes. "Yes. Boudrin--a splendid teacher--speaks English. He--and I--can teach you."
"Tell me what I'd have to do."
"We would coach you for a small part in some play that's to be produced here."
"I'll have an American girl written into a farce. Enough to get you used to the stage--to give you practice in what he'll teach you--the trade side of the art."
"And then we shall spend the summer learning your part in my play. Two or three weeks of company rehearsals in New York in September. In October--your name out over the Long Acre Theater in letters of fire."
"Could that be done?"
"Even if you had little talent, less intelligence, and no experience. Properly taught, the trade part of every art is easy. Teachers make it hard partly because they're dull, chiefly because there'd be small money for them if they taught quickly, and only the essentials. No, journeyman acting's no harder to learn than bricklaying or carpentering. And in America--everywhere in the world but a few theaters in Paris and Vienna--there is nothing seen but journeyman acting. The art is in its infancy as an art. It even has not yet been emancipated from the swaddling clothes of declamation. Yes, you can do well by the autumn. And if you develop what I think you have in you, you can leap with one bound into fame. In America or England, mind you--because there the acting is all poor to `pretty good'."
"You are sure it could be done? No--I don't mean that. I mean, is there really a chance--any chance--for me to make my own living? A real living?"
"I guarantee," said Brent.
She changed from seriousness to a mocking kind of gayety--that is, to a seriousness so profound that she would not show it. And she said:
"You see I simply must banish my old women--and that hunchback and his piano. They get on my nerves."
He smiled humorously at her. But behind the smile his gaze--grave, sympathetic--pierced into her soul, seeking the meaning he knew she would never put into words.
At the sound of voices in the hall she said:
"We'll talk of this again."
At lunch that day she, for the first time in many a week, listened without irritation while Freddie poured forth his unending praise of "my wife." As Brent knew them intimately, Freddie felt free to expatiate upon all the details of domestic economy that chanced to be his theme, with the exquisite lunch as a text. He told Brent how Susan had made a study of that branch of the art of living; how she had explored the unrivaled Parisian markets and groceries and shops that dealt in specialties; how she had developed their breakfasts, dinners, and lunches to works of art. It is impossible for anyone, however stupid, to stop long in Paris without beginning to idealize the material side of life--for the French, who build solidly, first idealize food, clothing, and shelter, before going on to take up the higher side of life--as a sane man builds his foundation before his first story, and so on, putting the observation tower on last of all, instead of making an ass of himself trying to hang his tower to the stars. Our idealization goes forward haltingly and hypocritically because we try to build from the stars down, instead of from the ground up. The place to seek the ideal is in the homely, the commonplace, and the necessary. An ideal that does not spring deep-rooted from the soil of practical life may be a topic for a sermon or a novel or for idle conversation among silly and pretentious people. But what use has it in a world that must live, and must be taught to live?
Freddie was unaware that he was describing a further development of Susan--a course she was taking in the university of experience--she who had passed through its common school, its high school, its college. To him her clever housekeeping offered simply another instance of her cleverness in general. His discourse was in bad taste. But its bad taste was tolerable because he was interesting--food, like sex, being one of those universal subjects that command and hold the attention of all mankind. He rose to no mean height of eloquence in describing their dinner of the evening before--the game soup that brought to him visions of a hunting excursion he had once made into the wilds of Canada; the way the barbue was cooked and served; the incredible duck--and the salad! Clelie interrupted to describe that salad as like a breath of summer air from fields and limpid brooks. He declared that the cheese--which Susan had found in a shop in the Marche St. Honore--was more wonderful than the most wonderful petit Suisse. "And the coffee!" he exclaimed. "But you'll see in a few minutes. We have coffee here."
"Quelle histoire!" exclaimed Brent, when Freddie had concluded. And he looked at Susan with the ironic, quizzical gleam in his eyes.
She colored. "I am learning to live," said she. "That's what we're on earth for--isn't it?"
"To learn to live--and then, to live," replied he.
She laughed. "Ah, that comes a little later."
"Not much later," rejoined he, "or there's no time left for it."
It was Freddie who, after lunch, urged Susan and Clelie to "show Brent what you can do at acting."
"Yes--by all means," said Brent with enthusiasm.
And they gave--in one end of the salon which was well suited for it--the scene between mother and daughter over the stolen diary, in "L'Autre Danger." Brent said little when they finished, so little that Palmer was visibly annoyed. But Susan, who was acquainted with his modes of expression, felt a deep glow of satisfaction. She had no delusions about her attempts; she understood perfectly that they were simply crude attempts. She knew she had done well--for her--and she knew he appreciated her improvement.
"That would have gone fine--with costumes and scenery--eh?" demanded Freddie of Brent.
"Yes," said Brent absently. "Yes--that is--Yes."
Freddie was dissatisfied with this lack of enthusiasm. He went on insistently:
"I think she ought to go on the stage--she and Madame Clelie, too."
"Yes," said Brent, between inquiry and reflection.
"What do you think?"
"I don't think she ought," replied Brent. "I think she must." He turned to Susan. "Would you like it?"
Susan hesitated. Freddie said--rather lamely, "Of course she would. For my part, I wish she would."
"Then I will," said Susan quietly.
Palmer looked astounded. He had not dreamed she would assent. He knew her tones--knew that the particular tone meant finality. "You're joking," cried he, with an uneasy laugh. "Why, you wouldn't stand the work for a week. It's hard work--isn't it, Brent?"
"About the hardest," said Brent. "And she's got practically everything still to learn."
"Shall we try, Clelie?" said Susan.
Young Madame Deliere was pale with eagerness. "Ah--but that would be worth while!" cried she.
"Then it's settled," said Susan. To Brent: "We'll make the arrangements at once--today."
Freddie was looking at her with a dazed expression. His glance presently drifted from her face to the fire, to rest there thoughtfully as he smoked his cigar. He took no part in the conversation that followed. Presently he left the room without excusing himself. When Clelie seated herself at the piano to wander vaguely from one piece of music to another, Brent joined Susan at the fire and said in English:
"Palmer is furious."
"I saw," said she.
"I am afraid. For--I know him."
She looked calmly at him. "But I am not."
"Then you do not know him."
The strangest smile flitted across her face.
After a pause Brent said: "Are you married to him?"
Again the calm steady look. Then: "That is none of your business."
"I thought you were not," said Brent, as if she had answered his question with a clear negative. He added, "You know I'd not have asked if it had been `none of my business.'"
"What do you mean?"
"If you had been his wife, I could not have gone on. I've all the reverence for a home of the man who has never had one. I'd not take part in a home-breaking. But--since you are free----"
"I shall never be anything else but free. It's because I wish to make sure of my freedom that I'm going into this."
Palmer appeared in the doorway.
That night the four and Gourdain dined together, went to the theater and afterward to supper at the Cafe de Paris. Gourdain and young Madame Deliere formed an interesting, unusually attractive exhibit of the parasitism that is as inevitable to the rich as fleas to a dog. Gourdain was a superior man, Clelie a superior woman. There was nothing of the sycophant, or even of the courtier, about either. Yet they already had in their faces that subtle indication of the dependent that is found in all professional people who habitually work for and associate with the rich only. They had no sense of dependence; they were not dependents, for they gave more than value received. Yet so corrupting is the atmosphere about rich people that Gourdain, who had other rich clients, no less than Clelie who got her whole living from Palmer, was at a glance in the flea class and not in the dog class. Brent looked for signs of the same thing in Susan's face. The signs should have been there; but they were not. "Not yet," thought he. "And never will be now."
Palmer's abstraction and constraint were in sharp contrast to the gayety of the others. Susan drank almost nothing. Her spirits were soaring so high that she did not dare stimulate them with champagne. The Cafe de Paris is one of the places where the respectable go to watch les autres and to catch a real gayety by contagion of a gayety that is mechanical and altogether as unreal as play-acting. There is something fantastic about the official temples of Venus; the pleasure-makers are so serious under their masks and the pleasure-getters so quaintly dazzled and deluded. That is, Venus's temples are like those of so many other religions in reverence among men--disbelief and solemn humbuggery at the altar; belief that would rather die than be undeceived, in the pews. Palmer scarcely took his eyes from Susan's face. It amused and pleased her to see how uneasy this made Brent--and how her own laughter and jests aggravated his uneasiness to the point where he was almost showing it. She glanced round that brilliant room filled with men and women, each of them carrying underneath the placidity of stiff evening shirt or the scantiness of audacious evening gown the most fascinating emotions and secrets--love and hate and jealousy, cold and monstrous habits and desires, ruin impending or stealthily advancing, fortune giddying to a gorgeous climax, disease and shame and fear--yet only signs of love and laughter and lightness of heart visible. And she wondered whether at any other table there was gathered so curious an assemblage of pasts and presents and futures as at the one over which Freddie Palmer was presiding somberly. . . . Then her thoughts took another turn. She fell to noting how each man was accompanied by a woman--a gorgeously dressed woman, a woman revealing, proclaiming, in every line, in every movement, that she was thus elaborately and beautifully toiletted to please man, to appeal to his senses, to gain his gracious approval. It was the world in miniature; it was an illustration of the position of woman--of her own position. Favorite; pet. Not the equal of man, but an appetizer, a dessert. She glanced at herself in the glass, mocked her own radiant beauty of face and form and dress. Not really a full human being; merely a decoration. No more; and no worse off than most of the women everywhere, the favorites licensed or unlicensed of law and religion. But just as badly off, and just as insecure. Free! No rest, no full breath until freedom had been won! At any cost, by straight way or devious--free!
"Let's go home," said she abruptly. "I've had enough of this."
She was in a dressing gown, all ready for bed and reading, when Palmer came into her sitting-room. She was smoking, her gaze upon her book. Her thick dark hair was braided close to her small head. There was delicate lace on her nightgown, showing above the wadded satin collar of the dressing gown. He dropped heavily into a chair.
If anyone had told me a year ago that a skirt could make a damn fool of me," said he bitterly, "I'd have laughed in his face. Yet--here I am! How nicely I did drop into your trap today--about the acting!"
"Oh, I admit I built and baited and set it, myself--ass that I was! But it was your trap--yours and Brent's, all the same. . . . A skirt--and not a clean one, at that."
She lowered the book to her lap, took the cigarette from between her lips, looked at him. "Why not be reasonable, Freddie?" said she calmly. Language had long since lost its power to impress her. "Why irritate yourself and annoy me simply because I won't let you tyrannize over me? You know you can't treat me as if I were your property. I'm not your wife, and I don't have to be your mistress."
"Getting ready to break with me eh?"
"If I wished to go, I'd tell you--and go."
"You'd give me the shake, would you?--without the slightest regard for all I've done for you!"
She refused to argue that again. "I hope I've outgrown doing weak gentle things through cowardice and pretending it's through goodness of heart."
"You've gotten hard--like stone."
"Like you--somewhat." And after a moment she added, "Anything that's strong is hard--isn't it? Can a man or a woman get anywhere without being able to be what you call `hard' and what I call `strong'?"
"Where do you want to get?" demanded he.
She disregarded his question, to finish saying what was in her mind--what she was saying rather to give herself a clear look at her own thoughts and purposes than to enlighten him about them. "I'm not a sheltered woman," pursued she. "I've got no one to save me from the consequences of doing nice, sweet, womanly things."
"You've got me," said he angrily.
"But why lean if I'm strong enough to stand alone? Why weaken myself just to gratify your mania for owning and bossing? But let me finish what I was saying. I never got any quarter because I was a woman. No woman does, as a matter of fact; and in the end, the more she uses her sex to help her shirk, the worse her punishment is. But in my case----
"I was brought up to play the weak female, to use my sex as my shield. And that was taken from me and--I needn't tell you how I was taught to give and take like a man--no, not like a man--for no man ever has to endure what a woman goes through if she is thrown on the world. Still, I'm not whining. Now that it's all over I'm the better for what I've been through. I've learned to use all a man's weapons and in addition I've got a woman's."
"As long as your looks last," sneered he.
"That will be longer than yours," said she pleasantly, "if you keep on with the automobiles and the champagne. And when my looks are gone, my woman's weapons. . .
"Why, I'll still have the man's weapons left--shan't I?--knowledge, and the ability to use it."
His expression of impotent fury mingled with compelled admiration and respect made his face about as unpleasant to look at as she had ever seen it. But she liked to look. His confession of her strength made her feel stronger. The sense of strength was a new sensation with her--new and delicious. Nor could the feeling that she was being somewhat cruel restrain her from enjoying it.
"I have never asked quarter," she went on. "I never shall. If fate gets me down, as it has many a time, why I'll he able to take my medicine without weeping or whining. I've never asked pity. I've never asked charity. That's why I'm here, Freddie--in this apartment, instead of in a filthy tenement attic--and in these clothes instead of in rags--and with you respecting me, instead of kicking me toward the gutter. Isn't that so?"
He was silent.
"Isn't it so?" she insisted.
"Yes," he admitted. And his handsome eyes looked the love so near to hate that fills a strong man for a strong woman when they clash and he cannot conquer. "No wonder I'm a fool about you," he muttered.
"I don't purpose that any man or woman shall use me," she went on, "in exchange for merely a few flatteries. I insist that if they use me, they must let me use them. I shan't be mean about it, but I shan't be altogether a fool, either. And what is a woman but a fool when she lets men use her for nothing but being called sweet and loving and womanly? Unless that's the best she can do, poor thing!"
"You needn't sneer at respectable women."
"I don't," replied she. "I've no sneers for anybody. I've discovered a great truth, Freddie the deep-down equality of all human beings--all of them birds in the same wind and battling with it each as best he can. As for myself--with money, with a career that interests me, with position that'll give me any acquaintances and friends that are congenial, I don't care what is said of me."
As her plan unfolded itself fully to his understanding, which needed only a hint to enable it to grasp all, he forgot his rage for a moment in his interest and admiration. Said he:
"You've used me. Now you're going to use Brent--eh? Well--what will you give him in exchange?"
"He wants someone to act certain parts in certain plays."
"Is that all he wants?"
"He hasn't asked anything else."
"And if he did?"
"Don't be absurd. You know Brent."
"He's not in love with you," assented Palmer. "He doesn't want you that way. There's some woman somewhere, I've heard--and he doesn't care about anybody but her."
He was speaking in a careless, casual way, watching her out of the corner of his eye. And she, taken off guard, betrayed in her features the secret that was a secret even from herself. He sprang up with a bound, sprang at her, caught her up out of her chair, the fingers of one hand clasping her throat.
"I thought so!" he hissed. "You love him--damn you! You love him! You'd better look out, both of you!"
There came a knock at the door between her bedroom and that of Madame Clelie. Palmer released her, stood panting, with furious eyes on the door from which the sound had come. Susan called, "It's all right, Clelie, for the present." Then she said to Palmer, "I told Clelie to knock if she ever heard voices in this room--or any sound she didn't understand." She reseated herself, began to massage her throat where his fingers had clutched it. "It's fortunate my skin doesn't mar easily," she went on. "What were you saying?"
"I know the truth now. You love Brent. That's the milk in the cocoanut."
She reflected on this, apparently with perfect tranquillity, apparently with no memory of his furious threat against her and against Brent. She said:
"Perhaps I was simply piqued because there's another woman."
"You are jealous."
"I guess I was--a little."
"You admit that you love him, you----"
He checked himself on the first hissing breath of the foul epithet. She said tranquilly:
"Jealousy doesn't mean love. We're jealous in all sorts of ways--and of all sorts of things."
"Well--he cares nothing about you."
"And never will. He'd despise a woman who had been----"
"Don't hesitate. Say it. I'm used to hearing it, Freddie--and to being it. And not `had been' but `is.' I still am, you know."
"You're not!" he cried. "And never were--and never could be--for some unknown reason, God knows why."
She shrugged her shoulders, lit another cigarette. He went on:
"You can't get it out of your head that because he's interested in you he's more or less stuck on you. That's the way with women. The truth is, he wants you merely to act in his plays."
"And I want that, too."
"You think I'm going to stand quietly by and let this thing go on--do you?"
She showed not the faintest sign of nervousness at this repetition, more carefully veiled, of his threat against her--and against Brent. She chose the only hopeful course; she went at him boldly and directly. Said she with amused carelessness:
"Why not? He doesn't want me. Even if I love him, I'm not giving him anything you want."
"How do you know what I want?" cried he, confused by this unexpected way of meeting his attack. "You think I'm simply a brute--with no fine instincts or feelings----"
She interrupted him with a laugh. "Don't be absurd, Freddie," said she. "You know perfectly well you and I don't call out the finer feelings in each other. If either of us wanted that sort of thing, we'd have to look elsewhere."
"You mean Brent--eh?"
She laughed with convincing derision. "What nonsense!" She put her arms round his neck, and her lips close to his. The violet-gray eyes were half closed, the perfume of the smooth amber-white skin, of the thick, wavy, dark hair, was in his nostrils. And in a languorous murmur she soothed his subjection to a deep sleep with, "As long as you give me what I want from you, and I give you what you want from me why should we wrangle?"
And with a smile he acquiesced. She felt that she had ended the frightful danger--to Brent rather than to herself--that suddenly threatened from those wicked eyes of Palmer's. But it might easily come again. She did not dare relax her efforts, for in the succeeding days she saw that he was like one annoyed by a constant pricking from a pin hidden in the clothing and searched for in vain. He was no longer jealous of Brent. But while he didn't know what was troubling him, he did know that he was uncomfortable.