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   Chapter 33 No.33

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 9454

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was night at the flat. There was just chill enough in the air to justify a cozy little fire. Through the open windows came the low hum of London, subdued by walls and distance to the pitch of a friendly accompaniment to talk. In two great leathern chairs, half facing each other, Vi and Leighton sat down, the fire between them.

They had been silent for a long time. Vi had been twisting her fingers, staring at them. Her lips were half open and mobile. She was even flushed. Suddenly she locked her hands and leaned forward.

"Grapes," she said without a drawl, "I have seen myself. It is terrible.

Nothing is left."

Leighton rose and stepped into his den. He came back slowly with two pictures in his hands.

"Look at these," he said. "If you were ten years older, you'd only have to glance at them, and they'd open a door to memory."

Vi gazed at the pictures, small paintings of two famous Spanish dancers. One was beautiful, languorous, carnal; the other was neither languorous nor carnal despite her wonderful body, and she was certainly not beautiful. Vi laid the second picture down and held the first. Then almost unconsciously she reached out her hand for the discarded picture. Gradually the face that was not beautiful drew her until attention grew into absorption. The portrait of the languorous beauty fell to her lap and then slipped to the floor, face down. Leighton laughed.

Vi glanced up.

"Why?" she asked.

"Oh, nothing," said Leighton, "except that the effect those pictures had on you is an exact parallel to the way the two originals influenced men. For that--" Leighton waved a hand at the picture on the floor-"men gave all they possessed in the way of worldly goods, and then Wondered why they'd done it. But for her-the one you 're looking at--"

He broke off. "You never heard of De Larade? De Larade spent all of his short life looking for animate beauty, and worshiping it when he found it. But he died leaning too far over a balcony to pick a flower for the Woman you're staring at."

"Why?" asked Vi again. "You knew her, of course. Tell me about her."

"I'm going to," said Leighton. "The first time I saw her on the stage she seemed to me merely an extra-graceful and extra-sensuous Spanish dancer. Nothing to rave over, nothing to stimulate a jaded palate. I could have met her; I decided I didn't want to. Later on I did meet her, not in her dressing-room, but at a house where she was the last person I expected to see."

Leighton picked up a cigarette, lighted it, and sat down.

"The place ought to have protected her," he continued, "but when you've seen two thirds of a woman's body, it takes a lot of atmosphere to make you forget it. We were in a corner by ourselves. I can't remember just what I did. Probably laid my hand on her arm with intent. Well, Vi, she didn't thrill the way your blood and mine has thrilled an occasion. She just shrank. Then she frowned, and the frown made her look really ugly. 'Don't forget,' she whispered to me, 'that I'm a married woman. I never forget it-not for one minute.'"

Leighton blew a cloud of smoke at the fire. It twisted into wreaths and whirled up the chimney.

"Quite a facer, eh?" he went on. "But it didn't down me. It only woke me up. 'Have you ever had a man sit down with you beside him and hold you so,' I asked her, 'with your back to his knees, your head in his hands and his eyes and his mouth close to yours-a man that wasn't trying to get to a single goal, but was content to linger with you in the land of dreams?'

"Believe me, Vi, the soul of a pure woman that every man thinks he has a right to make love to is the shyest of all souls. Such a woman sheds innuendo and actions with the proverbial ease of a duck disposing of a shower. But just words-the right words-will bring tears to her eyes. Well, I'd stumbled on the right words."

"'No,' she said, with a far-away look, 'I've never had a man hold me like that. Why?'"

"'Why?' I said, 'Because I will-some day.'"

"'You!'"

"I can't give you all the derision she put into that 'you!' Then her face and her eyes went as hard as flint. 'Money?' she asked, and I answered, 'No; love.'"

Leighton looked at his cigarette end and flipped it into the fire.

"She laughed, of course, and when she laughed she became to me the most unattainable and consequently the most desirable of women. I was at that age.

"Well, to cut the story short, I went mad over her, but it wasn't the madness that loses its head. It was just cunning-the cunning with a touch of fanaticism that always reaches its goal. I laid seige to her by day and by night, and at last, one day, she sent for me. She was alone; I could see that she meant

us to be alone. She made me sit down. She stood in front of me. To my eyes she had become beautiful. I wanted her, really wanted her.

"What she said was this: 'I've sent for you because, if you keep on, you're going to win. No, don't get up. Before you keep on, I want to tell you something about myself-about what I believe with all my soul. I don't have to tell you that I'm a good woman; you know it. The first time you saw me dance you were rather disgusted, weren't you? I nodded. 'What do you think of my dancing now?"

"I remember my answer to that. It was: 'You possess people gradually, you hold them forever. It's more than personality with you, it's power.'

"Her eyes were fastened on me. They drew mine. 'That's right,' she said; 'look at me. I want you to look at me. You see I'm an ugly woman.' I cried out in protest, and I meant it. Her face went suddenly hard. 'You fool,' she said, 'say that I'm pretty-say it now!' And I cried out at her, 'Not when you look like that. But you can assume beauty. You know it.'

"She seemed to pause in her thoughts at that and smiled. 'Can I-for you?' she asked in a way that made her divine. Then she jerked herself back. 'I'm an ugly woman. My body is wonderful. Look!' She raised her long arms, which were bare, gave a half-turn, and glanced at me over her shoulder. An apparently simple movement, but it was consummate in grace and display. 'You see?' she said, with a flashing smile. Then she turned and stood stolidly. 'I didn't have a body worth speaking of once. What I've got I made-every bit of it.'

"She sat down sidewise on a chair, folded her arms on the back of it, and looked at me over them. 'I have that power you were speaking of. Do you know just in what consists a woman's power over a man? I'll tell you: in keeping eternally just one thing that he wants.'

"She paused a long time on that, then she went on: 'Some women hold their own in the world and their men by beauty, others by wit, others by culture, breeding, and occasionally there's a woman clever enough to hold her place and her man by wealth. I've got none of these things. I've got only one great gift of God by which I hold my power. When that's gone, all is gone. Wise people have told me so. I know it is true.' She rose slowly, came and stood close beside me. 'It's-it's this-that I'm still my own. Do you want to-to rob me?"

Leighton paused, staring into the fire.

"That was the time," he said, "I went off on my longest shooting-trip. I never saw her again." He looked up. Vi was very pale.

"You have been cruel-cruel to me," she said.

Leighton sprang to his feet and started walking up and down.

"I have not," he said. "The trouble with you women is you're forever wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. If you thought I was going to comfort you with sophist assurances that there's a way out of paying the price for the kind of life you've led, you were just wrong. What I'm trying to do is to give you a prescription for an individual sick soul, not a well one."

He stopped and pointed at the picture lying on Vi's lap.

"Don't you see where her philosophy helps you? You've got all the elements of power that she lacked-beauty, wit, breeding, wealth, and-yes-and mind. She had that, too, but she didn't know it. With all that of your cargo left, can't you trade honestly with life? Can't you make life worth while, not only just to yourself? You'll be trading in compensations, it's true."

Leighton started walking up and down again.

"In one of my many brilliant moments," he went on, "I defined a compensation to Lewis as something that doesn't quite compensate. There you have the root of most of the sadness in life. But believe me, my dear girl, almost all the live people you and I know are trading in compensations, and this is what I want you to fasten on. Some of them do it nobly."

Leighton stood with folded arms, frowning at the floor. Vi looked up at him but could not catch his eye. She rose, picked up her wraps, and then came and stood before him. She laid her fingers on his arms.

"Grapes," she said, still without a drawl, "you have helped me-a lot.

Good night." She held up her lips.

"No, Vi," said Leighton, gravely. "Just give up paying even for kindness with a kiss."

Vi nodded her head.

"You're right; only-that kiss wouldn't have been as old as I." She turned from him. "I don't think I'll call you 'Grapes' any more."

"Yes, you will," said Leighton. "We're born into one name; we earn another. We've got a right to the one we earn. You see, even a man can't have his cake--"

But, with a wave of her hand, Vi was gone. Leighton heard Nelton running down the stairs to call a cab for her.

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