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   Chapter 27 No.27

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 9209

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Among Leighton's many pet theories was one that he called the axiom of the propitious moment. Any tyro at life could tell that a thing needed saying; skill came in knowing how to wait to say it. At Lady Derl's dinner Leighton had decided to go away for several months. He had something to say to Lewis before he went, but he passed nervous days waiting to say it. Then came the propitious moment. They were sitting alone over a cheerful small fire that played a sort of joyful accompaniment to the outdoor struggle of spring against the cold.

"In every society," said Leighton, breaking a long silence, "where women have been numerically predominant, the popular conception of morality has been lowered. Your historical limitations are such that you'll have to take my say-so for the truth of that generality."

"Yes, sir," said Lewis.

"Man's greatest illusion in regard to woman," continued Leighton, "is that she's fastidious. Men are fastidious and vulgar; women are neither fastidious nor vulgar. There's a reason. Women have been too intimately connected through the ages with the slops of life to be fastidious. That's driven them to look upon natural things with natural eyes. They know that vulgarity isn't necessary, and they revolt from it. These are all generalities, of course."

"Yes, sir," said Lewis.

"Women are very wonderful. They are an unconscious incarnation of knowledge. Knowledge bears the same relation to the wise that liquor does to the man who decided the world would be better without alcohol and started to drink it all up. Man's premier temptation is to drink up women. Lots of men start to do it, but that's as far as they get. One woman can absorb a dozen men; a dozen men can't absorb one woman. Women-any one woman-is without end. Am I boring you?"

"No, sir," said Lewis. "You are giving me a perspective."

"You've struck the exact word. Since we met, I've given you several of my seven lives, but there's one life a man can't pass on to his son-his life with relation to women. He can only give, as you said, a perspective."

Leighton chose a cigar carefully and lit it.

"Formerly woman had but one mission," he went on. "She arrived at it when she arrived at womanhood. The fashionable age for marriage was fifteen. Civilization has pushed it along to twenty-five. Those ten cumulative years have put a terrific strain on woman. On the whole, she has stood it remarkably well. But as modernity has reduced our animalism, it has increased our fundamental immorality and put a substantial blot on woman's mission as a mission. Woman has had to learn to dissemble charmingly, but in the bottom of her heart she has never believed that her mission is intrinsically shameful. That's why every woman feels her special case of sinning is right-until she gets caught. Do you follow me?"

"I think so," said Lewis.

"Well, if you've followed me, you begin to realize why a superfluity of women threatens conventional life. There are an awful lot of women in this town, Lew."

Leighton rose to his feet and started walking up and down, his hands clasped behind him, his head dropped.

"I haven't been feeding you on all these generalities just to kill time. A generality would be worth nothing if it weren't for its exceptions. Women are remarkable for the number of their exceptions. You are crossing a threshold into a peculiarly lax section and age of woman. I want you to believe and to remember that the world still breeds noble and innocent women."

Leighton stopped, threw up his head, and fixed Lewis with his eyes.

"Do you know what innocence is? Ask the average clergyman to describe innocence to you, and when he gets through, think a bit, take off the tinsel words with which he has decked out his graven image, and you'll find what? Ignorance enshrined. Every clergy the world has seen has enshrined ignorance, and ignorance has no single virtue that a sound turnip does not share."

Leighton stopped and faced his son.

"Now, my boy," he said, "here comes the end of the sermon. Beware of the second-best in women. Many a man trades his soul not for the whole world, but for a bed-fellow." He paused. "I believe," he continued, flushing, "I still believe that for every man there is an all-embracing woman to whom he is all-embracing. Thank God! I'm childish enough to believe in her still, though I speak through soiled lips-the all-embracing woman who alone can hold you and that you alone can hold."

Lewis stared absently into the fire.

"'The worlds of women are seven,'" he repeated, half to himself: "'spirit, we

ed, flower, the blind, the visioned, libertine, and saint. None of these is for thee. For each child of love there is a woman that holds the seven worlds within a single breast. Hold fast to thy birthright, even though thou journey with thy back unto the light.'"

"What-where-what's that?" stammered Leighton, staring at his son.

Lewis looked up and smiled.

"Only Old Immortality. Do you remember her? The old woman who told my fortune. She said that. D'you know, I think she must have been a discarded Gipsy. I never thought of it before. I didn't know then what a Gipsy was."

"Gipsy or saint, take it from me, she was, and probably is, a wise woman," said Leighton. "Somehow I'm still sure she can never die. Do you remember all she said when she told you your fortune?"

"Yes," said Lewis; "I think I do. Every once in a while I've said it over to myself."

"I wish you'd write down what she said and-and leave it on my table for me. You'll have to do it tonight, for I'm off to-morrow. Old Ivory and I have shot so much game we've grown squeamish about it, but it seems there's a terrific drought and famine on in the game country of the East Coast, and all the reserves have been thrown open. The idea is meat for the natives and a thinning out of game in the overstocked country. We are going out this time not as murderers, but as philanthropists."

"I'd like to go, too," said Lewis, his eyes lighting. "Won't you let me?"

"Not this trip, my boy," said Leighton. "I hate to refuse you anything, but don't think I'm robbing you. I'm not. I merely don't wish you to eat life too fast. Times will come when you'll need to go away. Just now you've got things enough to hunt right here. One of them is art. You may think you've arrived, but you haven't-not yet."

"I know I haven't," said Lewis.

Leighton nodded.

"Ever heard this sort of thing? 'Art is giving something for nothing. Art is the ensnaring of beauty in an invisible mesh. Art is the ideal of common things. Art is a mirage stolen from the heavens and trapped on a bit of canvas or on a sheet of paper or in a lump of clay.' And so on and so on."

Lewis smiled.

"As a matter of fact," continued Leighton, "those things are merely the progeny of art. Art itself is work, and its chief end is expression with repression. Remember that-with repression. Many an artist has missed greatness by mistaking license for originality and producing debauch. I don't want you to do that. I want you to stay here by yourself for a while and work; not with your hands, necessarily, but with your mind. Get your perspective of life now. Most of the pathetic 'what-might-have-beens' in the lives of men and women are due to misplaced proportions that made them struggle greatly for little things."

Lewis looked up and nodded.

"Dad, you've got a knack of saying things that are true in a way that makes them visible. When you talk, you make me feel as though some one had drawn back the screen from the skylight."

Leighton shrugged his shoulders. For a long moment he was silent; then he said:

"A life like mine has no justification if it can't let in light, even though it be through stained glass."

Lewis caught a wistful look in his father's eyes. He felt a sudden surge of love such as had come to him long years before when he had first sounded the depths of his father's tenderness. "There's no light in all the world like cathedral light, Dad," he said with a slight tremble in his voice, "and it shines through stained glass."

"Thanks, boy, thanks," said Leighton; then he smiled, and threw up his head. Lewis had learned to know well that gesture of dismissal to a mood.

"Just one more word," continued his father. "When you do get down to working with your hands, don't forget repression. Classicism bears the relation to art that religion does to the world's progress. It's a drag-anchor-a sound measure of safety-despised when seas are calm, but treasured against the hour of stress. Let's go and eat."

Lewis rose and put his hand on his father's arm.

"I'll not forget this talk, Dad," he said.

"I hope you won't, boy," said Leighton. "It's harder for me to talk to you than you think. I'm driven and held by the knowledge that there are only two ways in which a father can lose his son. One is by talking too much, the other's by not talking enough. The old trouble of the devil and the deep, blue sea; the frying-pan and the fire. Come, we've been bandying the sublime; let's get down to the level of stomachs and smile. The greatest thing about man is the range of his octaves."

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