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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIole - Chapter 8
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Iole - Chapter 8 Post by :MSCOTT Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :655

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Iole - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Harrow looked at his program, then, leaning toward Lissa, whispered: "That is the overture to _Attitudes_--the program explains it: 'A series of pale gray notes'--what the deuce!--'pale _gray notes giving the value of the highest light in which the play is pitched'--" He paused, aghast.

"I understand," whispered the girl, resting her lovely arm on the chair beside him. "Look! The curtain is rising! _How my heart beats! Does yours?"

He nodded, unable to articulate.

The curtain rose very, very slowly, upon the first scene of Barnard Haw's masterpiece of satire; and the lovely firing-line quivered, blue batteries opening very wide, lips half parted in breathless anticipation. And about that time Harrow almost expired as a soft, impulsive hand closed nervously over his.

And there, upon the stage, the human species was delicately vivisected in one act; human frailty exposed, human motives detected, human desire quenched in all the brilliancy of perverted epigram and the scalpel analysis of the astigmatic. Life, love, and folly were portrayed with the remorseless accuracy of an eye doubly sensitive through the stimulus of an intellectual strabismus. Barnard Haw at his greatest! And how he dissected attitudes; the attitude assumed by the lover, the father, the wife, the daughter, the mother, the mistress--proving that virtue, _per se_, is a pose. Attitudes! How he flayed those who assumed them. His attitude toward attitudes was remorseless, uncompromising, inexorable.

And the curtain fell on the first act, its gray and silver folds swaying in the half-crazed whirlwind of applause.

Lissa's silky hand trembled in Harrow's, her grasp relaxed. He dropped his hand and, searching, encountered hers again.

"_What do you think of it?" she asked.

"I don't think there's any harm in it," he stammered guiltily, supposing she meant the contact of their interlaced fingers.

"Harm? I didn't mean harm," she said. "The play is perfectly harmless, I think."

"Oh--the play! Oh, that's just _that sort of play, you know. They're all alike; a lot of people go about telling each other how black white is and that white is always black--until somebody suddenly discovers that black and white are a sort of greenish red. Then the audience applauds frantically in spite of the fact that everybody in it had concluded that black and white were really a shade of yellowish yellow!"

She had begun to laugh; and as he proceeded, excited by her approval, the most adorable gaiety possessed her.

"I _never heard anything half so clever!" she said, leaning toward him.

"I? Clever!" he faltered. "You--you don't really mean that!"

"Why? Don't you know you are? Don't you know in your heart that you have said the very thing that I in my heart found no words to explain?"

"Did I, really?"

"Yes. Isn't it delightful!"

It was; Harrow, holding tightly to the soft little hand half hidden by the folds of her gown, cast a sneaking look behind him, and encountered the fixed and furious glare of his closest friend, who had pinched him.

"Pig!" hissed Lethbridge, "do I sit next or not?"

"I--I can't; I'll explain----"

"_Do I?"

"You don't understand----"

"I understand _you_!"

"No, you don't. Lissa and I----"

"Lissa!"

"Ya--as! We're talking very cleverly; _I am, too. Wha'd'you wan' to butt in for?" with sudden venom.

"Butt in! Do you think I want to sit here and look at tha' damfool play! Fix it or I'll run about biting!"

Harrow turned. "Lissa," he whispered in an exquisitely modulated voice, "what would happen if I spoke to your sister Cybele?"

"Why, she'd answer you, silly!" said the girl, laughing. "Wouldn't you, Cybele?"

"I'll tell you what I'd like to do," said Cybele, leaning forward: "I'd like very much to talk to that attractive man who is trying to look at me--only your head has been in the way." And she smiled innocently at Lethbridge.

So Lissa moved down one. Harrow took her seat, and Cybele dropped gaily into Harrow's vacant place.

"_Now_," she said to Lethbridge, "we can tell each other all sorts of things. I was so glad that you looked at me all the while and so vexed that I couldn't talk to you. _How do you like my new gown? And what is your name? Have you ever before seen a play? I haven't, and my name is Cybele."

"It is per--perfectly heavenly to hear you talk," stammered Lethbridge.

Harrow heard him, turned and looked him full in the eyes, then slowly resumed his attitude of attention: for the poet was speaking:

"The Art of Barnard Haw is the quintessence of simplicity. What is the quintessence of simplicity?" He lifted one heavy pudgy hand, joined the tips of his soft thumb and forefinger, and selecting an atom of air, deftly captured it. "_That is the quintessence of simplicity; _that is Art!"

He smiled largely on Harrow, whose eyes had become wild again.

"_That!_" he repeated, pinching out another molecule of atmosphere, "and _that_!" punching dent after dent in the viewless void with inverted thumb.

On the hapless youth the overpowering sweetness of his smile acted like an anesthetic; he saw things waver, even wabble; and his hidden clutch on Lissa's fingers tightened spasmodically.

"Thank you," said the poet, leaning forward to fix the young man with his heavy-lidded eyes. "Thank you for the precious thoughts you inspire in me. Bless you. Our mental and esthetic commune has been very precious to me--very, very precious," he mooned bulkily, his rich voice dying to a resonant, soothing drone.

Lissa turned to the petrified young man. "Please be clever some more," she whispered. "You were so perfectly delightful about this play."

"Child!" he groaned, "I have scarcely sufficient intellect to keep me overnight. You must know that I haven't understood one single thing your father has been kind enough to say."

"What didn't you understand?" she asked, surprised.

"'_That!_'" He flourished his thumb. "What does '_That!_' mean?"

"Oh, that is only a trick father has caught from painters who tell you how they're going to use their brushes. But the truth is I've usually noticed that they do most of their work in the air with their thumbs.... What else did you not understand?"

"Oh--Art!" he said wearily. "What is it? Or, as Barnard Haw, the higher exponent of the Webberfield philosophy, might say: 'What it iss? Yess?'"

"I don't know what the Webberfield philosophy is," said Lissa innocently, "but Art is only things one believes. And it's awfully hard, too, because nobody sees the same thing in the same way, or believes the same things that others believe. So there are all kinds of Art. I think the only way to be sure is when the artist makes himself and his audience happier; then that is Art.... But one need not use one's thumb, you know."

"The--the way you make me happy? Is _that Art?"

"Do I?" she laughed. "Perhaps; for I am happy, too--far, far happier than when I read the works of Henry Haynes. And Henry Haynes _is Art. Oh, dear!"

But Harrow knew nothing of the intellectual obstetrics which produced that great master's monotypes.

"Have you read Double or Quits?" he ventured shyly. "It's a humming Wall Street story showing up the entire bunch and exposing the trading-stamp swindle of the great department stores. The heroine is a detective and--" She was looking at him so intently that he feared he had said something he shouldn't. "But I don't suppose that would interest you," he muttered, ashamed.

"It does! It is _new_! I--I never read that sort of a novel. Tell me!"

"Are you serious?"

"Of course. It is perfectly wonderful to think of a heroine being a detective."

"Oh, she's a dream!" he said with cautious enthusiasm. "She falls in love with the worst stock-washer in Wall Street, and pushes him off a ferry-boat when she finds he has cornered the trading-stamp market and is bankrupting her father, who is president of the department store trust----"

"Go on!" she whispered breathlessly.

"I will, but----"

"What is it? Oh--is it my hand you are looking for? Here it is; I only wanted to smooth my hair a moment. Now tell me; for I never, never knew that such books were written. The books my father permits us to read are not concerned with all those vital episodes of every-day life. Nobody ever _does anything in the few novels I am allowed to read--except, once, in _Cranford_, somebody gets up out of a chair in one chapter--but sits down again in the next," she added wearily.

"_I'll send you something to make anybody sit up and stay up," he said indignantly. "Baffles, the Gent Burglar; Love Militant, by Nora Norris Newman; The Crown-Snatcher, by Reginald Rodman Roony--oh, it's simply ghastly to think of what you've missed! This is the Victorian era; you have a right to be fully cognizant of the great literary movements of the twentieth century!"

"I love to hear you say such things," she said, her beautiful face afire. "I desire to be modern--intensely, humanly modern. All my life I have been nourished on the classics of ages dead; the literature of the Orient, of Asia, of Europe I am familiar with; the literature of England--as far as Andrew Bang's boyhood verses. I--all my sisters--read, write, speak, even think, in ten languages. I long for something to read which is vital, familiar, friendly--something of my own time, my own day. I wish to know what young people do and dare; what they really think, what they believe, strive for, desire!"

"Well--well, I don't think people really do and say and think the things that you read in interesting modern novels," he said doubtfully. "Fact is, only the tiresome novels seem to tell a portion of the truth; but they end by overdoing it and leave you yawning with a nasty taste in your mouth. I--I think you'd better let your father pick out your novels."

"I don't want to," she said rebelliously. "I want _you to."

He looked at the beautiful, rebellious face and took a closer hold on the hidden hand.

"I wish you--I wish I could choose--everything for you," he said unsteadily.

"I wish so, too. You are exactly the sort of man I like."

"Do--do you mean it?"

"Why, yes," she replied, opening her splendid eyes. "Don't I show the pleasure I take in being with you?"

"But--would you tire of me if--if we always--forever----"

"Were friends? No."

"Mo-m-m-more than friends?" Then he choked.

The speculation in her wide eyes deepened. "What do you mean?" she asked curiously.

But again the lone note of the thumped piano signaled silence. In the sudden hush the poet opened his lids with a sticky smile and folded his hands over his abdomen, plump thumbs joined.

"_What do you mean?" repeated Lissa hurriedly, tightening her slender fingers around Harrow's.

"I mean--I mean----"

He turned in silence and their eyes met. A moment later her fingers relaxed limply in his; their hands were still in contact--but scarcely so; and so remained while the _Attitudes of Barnard Haw held the stage.

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