Of Far Greater Importance
Is love an enemy to professional woman's intellectual career, or is it the creative flame which will make her life complete? Read in this story hy Mrs. Macbeth the solution found by Nadine Stair.
MRS. MEREDITH'S parties were always well patronized. She combined personalities as harmoniously as an artist blends color, or, as Nadine Stair once observed, as a chef assembles the parts of a happily-balanced meal—a solid, a little fluff, a commonplace sharpened by a dash of spice, and sweets that were interesting but which did not cloy the palate. This was the sort of party Peggy Meredith gave.
The fading light of a Sunday afternoon lent to her rooms by contrast, an added charm. The shaded candles guarded unpleasant secrets about the women’s age. The fire-glow gave an unusual sparkle to their eyes. The plain grey walls formed for the least attractive costume the precise background most likely to enhance its effect. And the men, responding to the appeal of such delightful women, became unaffectedly agreeable themselves, strengthening the harmony that prevailed.
But there came a moment even under Mrs. Meredith’s experienced directorship, when a slight tension gripped the gathering, when spontaneity drooped, and a suggestion of incompleteness was perceptible. It was the moment that every hostess dreads, as when she waits for the last of her dinner guests to arrive.
“Ah, here she is!" announced Mrs. Meredith, as a subdued tinkle rippled through the silence, and drove a spur into the languishing confusion of voices. “You know, she is never really late.”
XTADINE STAIR entered the room. It was evident - ' from her manner that this was the moment she had planned to arrive, and that she had taken no liberties with her self-imposed schedule.
“Dear Peggy,” she cried, “what a radiant corner of heaven you offer after the depressing murk of the world outside!”
“Perhaps you are right,” returned the other, who had risen from behind the tea table, “now that another angel
has come to strengthen the paradisaical effect. No sugar, I think?” How easy they were, thought David Verrall, standing a little apart and watching them. What admirable poise. He liked women with assurance, with the decorative artificialities of generations of culture. He was one of these masculine rareties who believed in the tutoring of Nature, who regarded ungilded lilies as vapid and anaemic, and to whom the ingenuousness of youth made not the slightest appeal.
“I suspect I’m lazy, or ungallant, if you prefer,” he had just said to Peggy, “but a helpless woman irritates me. I don’t want to be a support, economically, spiritually or mentally. I don’t like clinging vines. They are stultifying.”
Mrs. Meredith regarded him with an appraising eye. “Dear me,” she sighed. “How disappointing! There are so few oaks left. Your bulk and brawn, your square-cut chin, your whole make-up argues the magnificent tyrant, the bold defender, the noble and rapidly-disappearing he-man!” “Then I am a mis-fit,” laughed Verrall. “Seriously, I would rather have a companion than a slave, I would rather debate than pronounce, and I would rather compromise than enforce my commands.”
“Incredible,” murmured Peggy. “Nadine must hear this!”
Nadine Stair was tall, and slender, and leisured in speech and movement. To many of her friends, her reflectiveness carried with it a touch of melancholy. But Verrall saw her through shrewder eyes. To him, her repose suggested alluring deeps that only the very privileged might plumb. He conjured up a picture of her aglow with emotion. It was very agreeable. She would glow where Peggy Meredith would glitter.
“I think you know every one here,” the latter was saying, “with the possible exception of this Philistine, who boasts that he has not read one of your books. Mr. Verrall, I promised that you should meet Nadine Stair. I doubt that you will like one another . .
THE two, left to themselves, crossed swords, airily. “Even the oracle made mistakes,” observed Verrall. “But Peggy has psycho-analysis to help her,” returned Nadine.
“She gave me a very poor character reading,” insisted the man.
“Perhaps that wasn’t entirely her fault,” ventured his companion, a twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, I say . . . that’s too harsh. It isn’t so poor as she made it. However, if I protest that I shall lose no time in devouring everything you have written, will you give me an unprejudiced trial?”
“I’ll see,” laughed the woman, making room for him. “Tell me—”
“Please don’t ask the titles, or what I am working on at present. I never give interviews on Sunday.”
“Isn’t that an old-fashioned idea?”
“On the contrary. It is ultra modern. So far as I know, there is not another novelist who refuses to be interviewed on the Sabbath . . . indeed, it is most unusual to refuse to be interviewed at any time.”
“And you are fixed in your decision?”
He considered a moment, then:
“I suppose that when your mind is made up, you never change?”
“Certainly, I change,” she surprised him by confessing. “Isn’t the finest steel that which will flex and bend?”
“Of course. But—”
“I’m always on the alert for a change in ideas. Just convince me that yours are better than mine, and I’ll adopt them with gratitude.”
He drew a note-book from his pocket and scribbled on one of its pages.
“I’ll remind you of that promise, some day,” he said.
' I 'HROUGHOUT the winter, Verrall came to know Nadine Stair as well, he felt, as he was ever likely to know her. Although she raised no barrier against him— quite the contrary—he was always conscious of the myriad claims that stood between him and that revelation of her inner self about which he was so curious. As a child, he used to visit a genial uncle, a man widely appreciated as a raconteur and conversationalist. But not in his own home. Verrall could not recall that in the presence of his wife, Uncle Mordaunt ever reached the point of a story. Aunt Lydia inevitably killed the climax by reminding him of a neglected duty, or demanding her shawl which had been left in a distant part of the house. Young David used to quiver with rage and thwarted curiosity. He was left hanging in mid-air, and he hated the sensation.
It was the same with Nadine, only instead of Aunt Mordaunt, it was a rapacious public that cut in and spoiled for him the climax of her story. He had never imagined that a person could endure so many interruptions, could exist so entirely at the mercy of outsiders.
If they sat alone in her delightful study, the telephone kept up a continuous intrusion; if they walked or drove, Nadine was certain to be recognized by some one just at the moment conversation was taking a more intimate turn. Club-women, fellow-craftsmen, impulsive admirers —all built a wall around Nadine that excluded him.
Not that he was jealous. Nature had dowered him with a finely balanced reason and the ability to appreciate the other fellow’s point of view. He clearly saw that under existing conditions, Nadine Stair belonged to the mass rather than the individual. She did not belong even to herself.
But he also saw that the strain of such activity was beginning to tell. The poise he had so greatly admired was yielding to a slight, heaviness of manner. Stupor filmed the eyes that previously had worn an expression of lovely calm. Not infrequently, they were haunted, as though dreading the relentless march of the oncoming moment. Nadine Stair had become the slave of her popularity, her achievement.
“I have a proposal to make,” said Verrall, one evening as they drove home from a dull function. “A proposition,” he amended, unpleasantly alive to her stiffening, to the warning in her eyes. “You didn’t imagine that I could be so naive as to offer you my heart and hand?” He forced a laugh.
She ignored this, and demanded,
“What is your proposition?”
“I want to build a bungalow on my Riverdale property, and I want you to live in it.”
“Why, David Verrall! What in the world, for?”
“For our mutual advantage. I’ve always wanted to— to share the place with someone who would appreciate it, and, er—”
She stole a quick look at him, trying to fathom the exact intent that lay behind his words.
“I was considering plans when the war broke out,” he continued, “but it didn’t seem worth while to go ahead, when I mightn’t come back, you know. Then, in hospital, I rather lost interest. But lately, it has revived. What do you say?”
“Nothing. Whatever I say may be used against me. I will listen while you unfold your scheme.”
He did so. He had always wanted to experiment in architecture; he was searching for some incentive to strengthen his interest in Riverdale, to make it what it had been in his grandfather’s day. Ten years of neglect had transformed a beautiful estate into a wilderness, misused by nomad boys and picnic parties who flouted the No Trespassing signs, and the caretaker’s threats with impartial insolence.
“I’d like to spend more time at The Grange,” he told her. “It’s such a jolly old spot. But I know it will never hold me unless I have some agreeable neighbors.”
She acknowledged his implication with a little smile. “What of me?” she enquired. “Much as I should like to ornament your ancestral home, provide you entertainment and police the grounds, my work is—to me, at least —of far greater importance.”
“That’s exactly the idea,” cried Verrall. “It’s the importance of your work that emboldened me to make the suggestion. You can’t continue to produce good material under the present stress, Nadine. No one could. There’s no such thing as a holiday for you, and I don’t see how you can escape these thousand-and-one demands while you live in town. You do feel the pressure, I suppose? You would like to get away?”
“Yes, of course. But—”
“Exactly! And so long as you feel a sense of obligation to others, can’t you see that your energy will be dissipated and your creative power crippled? Now, if you were beyond reach, neither your conscience nor your nerves would suffer. As for the telephone—it’s astounding how unimportant a message seems when one has to pay long distance rates to deliver it!”
“That’s a good point,” conceded Nadine, her eyes on the traffic ahead.
“Imagine it,” Verrall went on, “twenty miles from a street car, thirty-five miles from a meeting! What more can you hope of Paradise?”
Nadine swung the car around a corner, and added, “Cream and eggs and fresh air; sunrise and the melody of bird-song; dark nights, throbbing to the music
of the whip-poor-will s plaintive cry; the drowsy monotony of empty days . . .1 know. I’ve written all about it.”
The car drew to a stop and Nadine got out. As a matter of course, Verrall followed her into the lift.
“I hope the soda has come,” she said, handing him the key to her door.
RED lacquer glowed richly in the light of a pair of sconces. Tapestried Orientals languidly at work in submerged rice fields, gave them welcome from the wall. A great timber wolf raised its head from the door as though to clutch the hem of Nadine’s gown, and a hint of sandalwood hung in the air. 1 On the table where a dainty supper was spread, lay a list of telephone calls, a special delivery letter and two telegrams. Nadine played with them and neglected her food.
“Riverdale is lovely in summer,” said Ver-
rall, trying to draw her thoughts from the morrow’s crowded hours.
“There is nothing formal about it.
The Grange is Georgian, and the grounds, for the most part, have been untouched, save where trees were planted or thinned in order to frame an especially fine view of the river. I want to build the bungalow on a little peninsula that commands the sunset and the moonrise at the same time. I know you’ll love it.”
Nadine secretly agreeing with him, descended abruptly to the practical.
She was casting about for objections upon which to hang a definite refusal.
There was something agreeably disquieting in the contemplation of the plan, something that was dangerously tempting.
“Landlord and tenant,” replied Verrall. “Half the rent you pay, here . . . not that price is much of a consideration to you, I know. Ordinary kind of lease . . . nothing tricky or permanent.”
There was a little pause.
“And Mrs. Grundy?”
He poured himself a drink before answering.
“I can only appeal to
your common sense. You can’t choke Mrs. Grundy . . . She is on your track right here. And remember, in no sense is
Riverdale an isolated spot. You will be surrounded by people, dreadfully respectable people—middle-class, factory people. They won’t bother you. They will hold you in profoundest awe, but don’t imagine that you can take any liberties with the conventions!”
“I was only half serious,” laughed Nadine, reluctant to admit how serious that half was.
So far, Verrall had been but a pleasant incident in her life. She found it sufficient. The desire for emotional adventure had been relentlessly suppressed. The coquetry expected of one with so promising an exterior, had been sternly disciplined.
But Nadine was not arrogant in her attitude towards sentiment. She did not overrate a woman’s power to resist the emotional appeal, and it was not so much respect for Mrs. Grundy that warned her against Verrall’s proposal, as lack of confidence in herself—in him. Given idyllic surroundings, closer intimacy, dependence upon one another . . . she could foresee the outcome of such a situation in the case of one of her heroines! She had
always held that propinquity was hostile to a sane and balanced friendship.
TTOWEVER, the late spring found her settled at Riverdale. The bungalow was perfect, she admitted, and as a landlord Verrall left nothing to be desired.
“For your own sake, David,” she said to him, one day, “I warn you to be less indulgent; otherwise, some future tenant will work your ruin.”
“A perfect house and a perfect landlord surely will attract a perfect tenant,” he returned lightly.
They seemed almost to enjoy emphasizing the idea of her impermanence.
Meanwhile, Nadine confessed that life at Riverdale was very comfortable. Freer to work than she had ever been, she was also freer to play. Lustre returned to her eyes; erectness to her slender form. She found it easy in the quiet of the days to hear those voices that whispered to her as she bent above her machine. Her book grew from lusty infancy into sturdy childhood, and then vigorous maturity, and she knew that it was good.
A rock garden blossomed under her un-
skilled hands; bird houses of her making were approved by families of feathered tenants; she acquired a dog, and tamed chipmunks and squirrels. Besides which, there were deliciously idle hours when she lay in a hammock under a basalt-blue sky, pretending that four stalwart maples were the posts of an antique bed, canopied with heaven and dangling a delftgreen valance over her head.
\ errall was very much occupied with his own affairs. The intimacy that Nadine had dreaded was as insubstantial as a ghost. They consulted about house parties, re-decorating The Grange, and the* perennial border; they motored, discussed books and argued as usual, but if his visits had been measured by the hour, Nadine would have discovered that she saw him rather less frequently than when she lived in town.
Now and again, she would resort to the
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emotional thermometer fearful lest she might detect a change in her temperature, so to say. But these self-searchings always reassured her. She depended upon him no more than before.
And he, too, was unaffected by what her friends had been pleased to declare was an impossible situation. She drew a little sigh—of relief, she would have said.
UP HEY sat together one evening just A after sunset. On the golden surface of the river lay a meadow of water-lilies, in dream-like profusion. The silence was broken only by a faint bubbling in Verrall’s pipe.
“I suppose,” he observed, at last, “most people ask you, sooner or later, why you don’t marry?”
“Most,” she replied, affecting a yawn.
“Well, why don’t you?”
Nadine laughed. She was anxious to guard against any suggestion of defensiveness.
“I have but a limited amount of energy. If this is expended in sentiment, obviously there is little left for my intellect. Sentiment is opposed to reason, is it not? Isn’t that what makes it so universally popular?”
Verrall asked if she did not think that each new experience enriched the mind; if she denied the creative power of love. Nadine answered the latter part of the question.
“Certainly not! No more than I deny the creative power of food. In both cases there is an ethical response to a physical condition.”
“Good Lord!” muttered Verrall, into his pipe.
“l ean see,” Nadine continued, “that physical hunger is a drain upon the body, so the emotional hunger called ‘love’ must gnaw at the mind and hamper clear thinking. When food is provided, naturally the system responds. Relief from anyform of irritation produces a happy result. There’s not much ‘creative power’ when one is hungry.”
“There is a contention to the effect that the greater the intellectual development, the more urgent the need for—er—motional balance,” remarked Verrall,looking across the brazen river.
“That’s nonsense,” cried Nadine promptly. “I don’t agree, at all.” Then after a moment, “Do you?”
“I rather think there’s something in it,” he said, mildly.
A FEW days later, over a cup of tea, -CY they found themselves back at the same topic. Somewhat impatiently Nadine declared that anything that detracted from her ability to work, or her enjoyment in work, she regarded as a menace. “Besides,” she added, “I am fond of quoting Oscar Wilde, who said that ‘twenty years of romance made a wreck of a woman, but twenty years of marriage made her look like a public building.’ ”
“I had no idea you were so vain,” said AYrrall.
“Certainly, I’m vain! And, sometimes, I suspect that, unconsciously, I’m sentimental as well, for I shrink from the truism that even the loveliest bride becomes in time, a mere wife. That’s the depressing part of marriage. However, while we’re on the subject, why don’t you take a wife to your bosom?”
“Perhaps I shall,” replied the man, meditatively. “I’ll look over the Continental offerings presently, and if anything appeals to me—”
She exclaimed. When had he decided to go away? Where, and for how long?
“Yesterday . . . Italy . . . about
six months,” he told her. “I’m going to have my Furini restored for one thing, and gather some ideas for a couple of villas which ought to be built on the other side of The Grange, and—er—just knock about, generally. If I may say so, this bungalow business has been a great success, and what is success worth if not to enlarge?”
Nadine observed pleasantly that his words belied his actions. He had given her to understand that a congenial neighbor would guarantee his residence at Riverdale . . . “and now,” she accused, “you are going away. Am I to understand that you see me with a clearer vision than when you made the previous declaration?”
“By no means,” he laughed. “But I must guard against the hour of your going. I have a devastating suspicion that when your book is finished, you will find it expedient to return to town. My new-established colony will then be my only consolation. You don’t begrudge me that. Seriously, what do you think of these drawings?”
She tried to be interested, to keep her mind upon what he was saying, but unbidden questions would flare across her brain. She had never considered Riverdale without David Verrall. Would his absence make any difference in her days? Would she miss him more than was comfortable? Would her work in any way be affected?
Of course, she reminded herself, there was no reason to stay on during the winter. To be bored was quite as bad as to have over-many distractions. She could close the bungalow and go back to town. A very happy idea! It was settled as she sat there pretending to listen. At the first tremor of loneliness she would go back to town.
CHE gave him a farewell party, and was V5 one of the group who saw him off. Then she returned alone to Riverdale, determined to ignore his absence.
In a measure, she succeeded. But it soon became evident that in schooling herself to take no cognizance of Verrall’s ■departure, she had, perforce, to keep him constantly in mind!
“This is most annoying,” she thought.
I am in the absurd position of a woman who can hold a door fast against intrusion, but can do nothing else because she has to hold the door! I shall hate him if he interferes with my work.”
And yet, she could not resist the temptation of weaving the situation into a story, experimenting with sensations common to the ordinary woman, and with which she would endow her heroine. This heroine was free to think a good deal about David Verrall, to admit that she missed him, to enjoy a little self-pity and humiliation, remembering how easily he made his departure.
For a time, the story went very well. Then, Nadine faced the climax. What should she do, now? Pluck out this stealthy fondness for the man, or wait patiently until the hour of his return and woo him with all the nascent seductiveness of her feminine nature?
She worked at the problem for days, sublimely unaware that she was her own protagonist, that she was producing an autobiography—not a fictitional adventure.
She delayed moving into town. It was curious that in one short summer she could have become so detached from people. Most of her friends were unsatisfying. They provoked a reasonless irritation. She was glad to be alone. Besides there was atmosphere at Riverdale—the atmosphere she required for this new short story.
The book hung fire, balked, refused to march onward towards its inevitable conclusion. The story was equally slow. She wanted to talk it over with some one. But with whom—Peggy?—the editor? Of course, if David had been here—she admitted missing David. Every wyriter needs the friendly offices of the critic on the hearth.
She wrote him bulky letters, and watched eagerly for his in reply. At first, they resembled a time table; “Arrived here at 10:26. Leave at high noon. Will write later.” Then they merged into treatises, impersonal as a guide book, and if possible, more dull.
Nadine would have found it difficult to define exactly what she had expected of David’s letters, but whatever it was, they fell far below her expectations.
SHE thought about him continually, now—in the interest of her heroine, of course. And when a vague ache within her became too definite to be ignored, she tried to welcome it and capture it in the mesh of her story.
“Art,” she told herself, “is experience expressed so that others can-understand. Heaven knows how I have ever made my sentimental women convincing before . . . I am deeply indebted to David.” The words were brave, but for the first
time in her life, Nadine was conscious of loneliness, of the dread of old age, when companionship is dearer than success and riches.
“What is the past?” she mused. “One’s own, certainly, but unimportant to the swarms of people who push and jostle to build a pedestal for themselves. Who will care, when I am eighty, whether I’ve been a successful novelist or not?”
For days she battled against the admission that she had fallen in love with Verrall. “David of all men! Why, if this thing had to happen, couldn’t it have been some one who cares for me?” she cried. There was something grimly humorous in the fact that she was suffering the pangs of an unrequited love!
The thin, blue twilight of New Year’s Eve folded about the bungalow. Nadine sat at the window looking out towards the river that lay like a field of pewter in the dusk. She was weary of fighting. The enemy was too strong. “I’ll agonize to the very limit of my capacity,” she resolved • _ • . “The harder I suffer, the sooner a climax will be reached and the pain will decrease.”
Every nerve cried out in longing. With a wild, primitive gesture, Nadine flung out her arms. “Oh, David,” she moaned. “Oh, David!”
There was a quick step on the verandah, and Verrall burst into the room.
“I dared not hope to find you here, alone,” he cried, “but when I saw the fire glow on the windows, I jumped from the taxi, and took a chance. Are you—are you ill—or anything?”
Nadine had not moved. Now, she rose and came towards him.
“No—,” she answered. “I—I just didn’t want to revel—that’s all. It’s been lovely sitting here—”
“I could hardly wait to get back,” he said.
“Isn’t your return rather sudden?”
He shook his head.
“Three months isn’t sudden, is it?”
She looked at him in genuine surprise. “You had no intention of getting back for the New Year, had you? I thought you said six months—”
“Yes, but, that was before I—” he broke off. “Nadine, I’m sorry, but the thing just happened. I fought desperately —please believe me, I did! I went away hoping to conquer . . . No use . . . I don’t mean to whine, but I’m shameless. I came home to beg—Isn’t there any hope for me? Isn’t there a flicker of response that I can fan into a living flame?”
ASTRANGE calm crept beneath the tumult of her thoughts. The revelation of Verrall’s love seemed to provide the emotional food for which she had craved, and with that satisfaction, something of her old hardness revived. Her work must be considered. She might agree to marry him—but there would be conditions.
“Are you asking me to be your wife?” she demanded.
“No. I don’t expect that! I know how repugnant that idea is to you. No, I am not asking you to be my wife—but if—if —you would only see your way to help me—if you would just let me come to you once in a while, I would go away and not trouble you any more. ... I know I am a beast,” he went on, miserably, “but I want you ... I want you so! Ever since that Sunday we met at Peggy’s, I .have loved you. I thought I could be satisfied with a casual association, but I can’t! Oh, be good to me, Nadine!” Nadine struggled against the temptation to yield, to throw herself into his arms, to know the exquisite delight of complete surrender. On the rare occasions when she had permitted her thoughts to dwell on the tenderer phases of life, it was some such arrangement as David proposed, that she had visualized for herself; never marriage. But now, in the light of an imminent undertaking, Nadine found
that its aspect hadYhanged. She, David Verrall’s mistress . . . that was the long and short of it! The mere suggestion produced an ugly bruise upon her .spirit. Dumbly, she looked at David, not knowing what to say.
“Don’t decide at once,” he cried. “I want to take you in your softest, kindest mood! Oh, Nadine, you must be good to me! I’ll come back later ...”
He caught her in his arms, kissed her savagely and rushed from the room.
Nadine stared at the door, shaken and ashamed. Her brief moment of ecstasy gave way to torment that exceeded anything she had ever known. David did not want to marry her! That explained his ready acceptance of a theory he should have known she could not put into practice! Even though she had expressed herself as opposed to the institution of marriage? Must he regard every word that fell from her lips as literal? She hated him for the hurt he had caused. Aware of her inconsistency, she hated herself. But she wanted him.
Should she go to him, confess her change of faith and offer herself as his wife? Why not? Wasn’t anything better than waiting here to endure a renewal of that proposal? She clutched feebly at the remnant of her pride, and immediately flung it away.
“Pride,” she thought, “is for youth. In anotherfew years, I shall be middle-aged.”
SHE went to her room, seized a wrap and had just reached the door when she heard his step on the gravel.
“Oh, my dear,” he cried, “were you running away? Are you afraid?”
“No! I was going—”
“Don’t go, Nadine! The mists have lifted. I came back to tell you that I am ashamed to have spoken as I did! Forgive me! . . . I do not want you to be less than wholly mine. I do not want to be less than wholly yours. If you can’t marry me—”
“Perhaps I can,” she interrupted.
He stared at her, doubting that he had heard aright. “But your work—” he began.
“It will be better than ever. I’ve been thinking, David. To the artist, life comes first, for it is the interpretation of life that produces Art.”
“And you will really marry me?”
The light in her eyes answered him. She was the embodiment of the picture he had so fantastically conjured up the afternoon they met in Peggy Meredith’s drawing room.
“I can scarcely believe it yet,” he murmured. “If your work should suffer—” “Of course, it will suffer,” she cheerfully replied, “but better it should, than I . . . Oh, there will be rough spots, my dear! Remember, that modern woman expects to be wooed after marriage rather than before. I shan’t hide my caprices under a thimble or a cedar mop. Nor shall you become a domestic dolt, secure in the possession of ‘your woman’! Oh, I can see great possibilities in our future, David!” “I tremble!” He was fascinated by her unfamiliar mood. “But, tell me, why are you willing to jeopardize your work and marry me? Say it, Nadine. I want to hear!”
And knowing quite well the words he longed to hear her speak, she became suddenly possessed by coquetry. “Perhaps I have changed my mind,” she said.
Verrall drew a note-book from his pocket. Its pages fell apart as if from frequent fingering. The exposed item read:
“I'm always on the alert for a change in ideas. Just convince me that yours are better than mine, and I'll adopt them with gratitude."
“Especially,” Nadine added, “now that I think—I love you—David!”
“Incomparable woman!” he cried, and quite lost his head.