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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 8
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The Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 8 Post by :Rick_Ostring Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :555

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The Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Young Shotwell, still too incredulous to be either hurt or angry, stood watching Palla welcoming her guests, who arrived within a few minutes of each other.

First came Estridge,--handsome, athletic, standing over six feet, and already possessed of that winning and reassuring manner which means success for a physician.

"It's nice of you to ask me, Palla," he said. "And is Miss Westgard really coming to-night?"

"But here she is now!" exclaimed Palla, as the maid announced her. "--Ilse! You astonishing girl! How long have you been in New York?"

And Shotwell beheld the six-foot goddess for the first time--gazed with pleasurable awe upon this young super-creature with the sea-blue eyes and golden hair and a skin of roses and cream.

"Fancy, Palla!" she said, "I came immediately back from Stockholm, but you had sailed on the _Elsinore_, and I was obliged to wait!--Oh!--" catching sight of Estridge as he advanced--"I am so very happy to see you again!"--giving him her big, exquisitely sculptured hand. "Except for Mr. Brisson, we are quite complete in our little company of death!" She laughed her healthy, undisturbed defiance of that human enemy as she named him, gazed rapturously at Palla, acknowledged Shotwell's presentation in her hearty, engaging way, then turned laughingly to Estridge:

"The world whirls like a wheel in a squirrel cage which we all tread:--only to find ourselves together after travelling many, many miles at top speed!... Are you well, John Estridge?"

"Fairly," he laughed, "but nobody except the immortals could ever be as well as you, Ilse Westgard!"

She laughed in sheer exuberance of her own physical vigour: "Only that old and toothless nemesis of Loki can slay me, John Estridge!" And, to Palla: "I had some slight trouble in Stockholm. Fancy!--a little shrimp of a man approached me on the street one evening when there chanced to be nobody near.

"And the first I knew he was mouthing and grinning and saying to me in Russian: 'I know you, hired mercenary of the aristocrats!--I know you!--big white battle horse that carried the bloody war-god!'

"I was too astonished, my dear; I merely gazed upon this small and agitated toad, who continued to run alongside and grimace and pull funny faces at me. He appeared to be furious, and he said some very vile things to me.

"I was disgusted and walked faster, and he had to run. And all the while he was squealing at me: 'I know you! You keep out of America, do you hear? If you sail on that steamer, we follow you and kill you! You hear it what I say? We kill! Kill! Kill!----'"

She threw up her superb head and laughed:

"Can you see him--this insect--Palla!--so small and hairy, with crazy eyes like little sparks among the furry whiskers!--and running, running at heel, underfoot, one side and then the other, and squealing 'Kill! Kill? Kill'----"

She had made them see the picture and they all laughed.

"But all the same," she added, turning to Estridge, "from that evening I became conscious that people were watching me.

"It was the same in Copenhagen and in Christiania--always I felt that somebody was watching me."

"Did you have any trouble?" asked Estridge.

"Well--there seemed to be so many unaccountable delays, obstacles in securing proper papers, trouble about luggage and steamer accommodations--petty annoyances," she added. "And also I am sure that letters to me were opened, and others which I should have received never arrived."

"You believe it was due to the Reds?" asked Palla. "Have they emissaries in Scandinavia?"

"My dear, their agents and spies swarm everywhere over the world!" said Ilse calmly.

"Not here," remarked Shotwell, smiling.

"Oh," rejoined Ilse quickly, "I ask your pardon, but America, also, is badly infested by these people. As their Black Plague spreads out over the entire world, so spread out the Bolsheviki to infect all with the red sickness that slays whole nations!"

"We have a few local Reds," he said, unconvinced, "but I had scarcely supposed----"

The bell rang: Miss Lanois and Mr. Tchernov were announced, greeted warmly by Palla, and presented.

Both spoke the beautiful English of educated Russians; Vanya Tchernov, a wonderfully handsome youth, saluted Palla's hand in Continental fashion, and met the men with engaging formality.

Shotwell found himself seated beside Marya Lanois, a lithe, warm, golden creature with greenish golden eyes that slanted, and the strawberry complexion that goes with reddish hair.

"You are happy," she said, "with all your streets full of bright flags and your victorious soldiers arriving home by every troopship. Ah!--but Russia is the most unhappy of all countries to-day, Mr. Shotwell."

"It's terribly sad," he said sympathetically. "We Americans don't seem to know whether to send an army to help you, or merely to stand aside and let Russia find herself."

"You should send troops!" she said. "Is it not so, Ilse?"

"Sane people should unite," replied the girl, her beautiful face becoming serious. "It will arrive at that the world over--the sane against the insane."

"And it is only the bourgeoisie that is sane," said Vanya Tchernov, in his beautifully modulated voice. "The extremes are both abnormal--aristocrats and Bolsheviki alike."

"We social revolutionists," said Marya Lanois, "were called extremists yesterday and are called reactionists to-day. But we are the world's balance. This war was fought for our ideals; your American soldiers marched for them: the hun failed because of them."

"And there remains only one more war," said Ilse Westgard,--"the war against those outlaws we call Capital and Labour--two names for two robbers that have disturbed the world's peace long enough!"

"Two tyrants," said Marya, "who trample us to war upon each other--who outrage us, crush us, cripple us with their ferocious feuds. What are the Bolsheviki? 'Those who want more.' Then the name belongs as well to the capitalists. They, also, are Bolsheviki--'men who always want more!' And these are the two quarrelling Bolsheviki giants who trample us--Lord Labour, Lord Capital--the devil of envy against the devil of greed!--war to the death! And, to the survivor, the bones!"

Shotwell, a little astonished to hear from the red lips of this warm young creature the bitter cynicisms of the proletariat, asked her to define more clearly where the Bolsheviki stood, and for what they stood.

"Why," she said, lying back on the sofa and adjusting her lithe body to a more luxurious position among the pillows, "it amounts to this, Mr. Shotwell, that a new doctrine is promulgated in the world--the cult of the under-dog.

"And in all dog-fights, if the under-dog ever gets on top, then he, also, will try to kill the ci-devant who has now become the under-dog." And she laughed at him out of her green eyes that slanted so enchantingly.

"You mean that there always will be an under-dog in the battle between capital and labour?"

"Surely. Their snarling, biting, and endless battle is a nuisance." She smiled again: "We should knock them both on the head."

"You know," explained Ilse, "that when we speak of the two outlaws as Capital and Labour, we don't mean legitimate capital and genuine labour."

"They never fight," added Tchernov, smiling, "because they are one and the same."

"Of course," remarked Marya, "even the united suffer occasionally from internal pains."

"The remedy," added Vanya, "is to consult a physician. That is--arbitration."

Ilse said: "Force is good! But one uses it legitimately only against rabid things." She turned affectionately to Palla and took her hands: "Your wonderful Law of Love solves all phenomena except insanity. With rabies it can not deal. Only force remains to solve that problem."

"And yet," said Palla, "so much insanity can be controlled by kind treatment."

Estridge agreed, but remarked that strait-jackets and padded cells would always be necessary in the world.

"As for the Bolsheviki," said Marya, turning her warm young face to Shotwell with a lissome movement of the shoulders, almost caressing, "in the beginning we social revolutionists agreed with them and believed in them. Why not? Kerensky was an incapable dreamer--so sensitive that if you spoke rudely to him he shrank away wounded to the soul.

"That is not a leader! And the Cadets were plotting, and the Cossacks loomed like a tempest on the horizon. And then came Korniloff! And the end."

"The peace of Brest," explained Vanya, in his gentle voice, "awoke us to what the Red Soviets stood for. We saw Christ crucified again. And understood."

Marya sat up straight on the sofa, running her dazzling white fingers over her hair--hair that seemed tiger-red, and very vaguely scented.

"For thirty pieces of silver," she said, "Judas sold the world. What Lenine and Trotsky sold was paid for in yellow metal, and there were more pieces."

Ilse said: "Babushka is dying of it. That is enough for me."

Vanya replied: "Where the source is infected, drinkers die at the river's mouth. Little Marie Spiridonova perished. Countess Panina succumbed. Alexandria Kolontar will die from its poison. And, as these died, so shall Ivan and Vera die also, unless that polluted source be cleansed."

Marya rested her tawny young head on the cushions again and smiled at Shotwell:

"It's confusing even to Russians," she said, "--like a crazy Bakst spectacle at the Marinsky. I wonder what you must think of us."

But on her expressive mouth the word "us" might almost have meant "me," and he paid her the easy compliment which came naturally to him, while she looked at him out of lazy and very lovely eyes as green as beryls.

"_Tiche_," she murmured, smiling, "_ce n'est pas moi l'etat, monsieur_." And laughed while her indolent glance slanted sideways on Vanya, and lingered there as though in leisurely but amiable appraisal.

The girl was evidently very young, but there seemed to be an indefinable something about her that hinted of experience beyond her years.

Palla had been looking at her--from Shotwell to her--and Marya's sixth sense was already aware of it and asking why.

For between two females of the human species the constant occult interplay is like steady lighting. With invisible antennae they touch one another incessantly, delicately exploring inside that grosser aura which is all that the male perceives.

And finally Marya looked back at Palla.

"May Mr. Tchernov play for us?" asked Palla, smiling, as though some vague authority in the matter were vested in this young girl with the tiger-hair.

Her eyes closed indolently, and opened again as though digesting the subtlety: then, disdainfully accepting the assumption: "Oh, Vanya," she called out carelessly, "play a little for us."

The handsome youth bowed in his absent, courteous way. There was about him a simplicity entirely winning as he seated himself at the piano.

But his playing revealed a maturity and nobility of mind scarcely expected of such gentleness and youth.

Never had Palla heard Beethoven until that moment.

He did not drift. There was no caprice to offend when he turned with courtly logic from one great master to another.

Only when Estridge asked for something "typically Russian" did the charming dignity of the sequence break. Vanya laughed and looked at Marya Lanois:

"That means you must sing," he said.

She sang, resting where she was among the silken cushions;--the song, one of those epics of ancient Moscow, lauded Ivan IV. and the taking of Kazan.

The music was bizarre; the girl's voice bewitching; and though the song was of the _Beliny_, it had been made into brief couplets, and it ended very quickly.

Laughing at the applause, she sang a song of the _Skomorokhi_; then a cradle song, infinitely tender and strange, built upon the Chinese scale; and another--a Cossack song--built, also, upon the pentatonic scale.

Discussions intruded then; the diversion ended the music.

Palla presently rose, spoke to Vanya and Estridge, and came over to where Jim Shotwell sat beside Marya.

Interrupted, they both looked up, and Jim rose as Estridge also presented himself to Marya.

Palla said: "If you will take me out, Jim, we can show everybody the way." And to Marya: "Just a little supper, you know--but the dining room is below."

* * * * *

Her pretty drawing-room was only partly furnished--an expensive but genuine set of old Aubusson being her limit for the time.

But beyond, in the rear, the little glass doors opened on a charming dining-room, the old Georgian mahogany of which was faded to a golden hue. Curtains, too, were golden shot with palest mauve; and two Imperial Chinese panels of ancient silk, miraculously embroidered and set with rainbow Ho-ho birds, were the only hangings on the walls. And they seemed to illuminate the room like sunshine.

Shotwell, who knew nothing about such things but envisaged them with reverence, seated Palla and presently took his place beside her.

His neighbour on his left was Marya, again--an arrangement which Palla might have altered had it occurred to her upstairs.

Estridge, very animated, and apparently happy, recalled to Palla their last dinner together, and their dance.

Palla laughed: "You said I drank too much champagne, John Estridge! Do you remember?"

"You bet I do. You had a cunning little bunn, Palla----"

"I did not! I merely asked you and Mr. Brisson what it felt like to be intoxicated."

"You did your best to be a sport," he insisted, "but you almost passed away over your first cigarette!"

"Darling!" cried Ilse, "don't let them tease you!"

Palla, rather pink, laughingly denied any aspirations toward sportdom; and she presently ventured a glance at Shotwell, to see how he took all this.

But already Marya had engaged him in half smiling, low-voiced conversation; and Palla looked at her golden-green eyes and warm, rich colouring, cooled by a skin of snow. Tiger-golden, the _rousse ensemble; the supple movement of limb and body fascinated her; but most of all the lovely, slanting eyes with their glint of beryl amid melting gold.

Estridge spoke to Marya; as the girl turned slightly, Palla said to Shotwell:

"Do you find them interesting--my guests?"

He turned instantly to her, but it seemed to her as though there were a slight haze in his eyes--a fixedness--which cleared, however, as he spoke.

"They are delightful--all of them," he said. "Your blond goddess yonder is rather overpowering, but beautiful to gaze upon."

"And Vanya?"

"Charming; astonishing."

"Lovable," she said.

"He seems so."

"And--Marya?"

"Rather bewildering," he replied. "Fascinating, I should say. Is she very learned?"

"I don't know."

"She's been in the universities."

"Yes.... I don't know how learned she is."

"She is very young," he remarked.

It was on the tip of Palla's tongue to say something; and she remained silent--lest this man misinterpret her motive--and, perhaps, lest her own conscience misinterpret it, too.

Ilse said it to Estridge, however, frankly insouciant:

"You know Marya and Vanya are married--that is, they live together."

And Shotwell heard her.

"Is that true?" he said in a low voice to Palla.

"Why, yes."

He remained silent so long that she added: "The tie is not looser than the old-fashioned one. More rigid, perhaps, because they are on their honour."

"And if they tire of each other?"

"You, also, have divorce," said the girl, smiling.

"Do you?"

"It is beastly to live together where love does not exist. People who believe as they do--as I do--merely separate."

"And contract another alliance if they wish?"

"Do not your divorcees remarry if they wish?"

"What becomes of the children?" he demanded sullenly.

"What becomes of them when your courts divorce their parents?"

"I see. It's all a parody on lawful regularity."

"I'm sorry you speak of it that way----"

The girl's face flushed and she extended her hand toward her wine glass.

"I didn't intend to hurt you, Palla," he said.

She drew a quick breath, looked up, smiled: "You didn't mean to," she said. Then into her brown eyes came the delicious glimmer:

"May I whisper to you, Jim? Is it too rude?"

He inclined his head and felt the thrill of her breath:

"Shall we drink one glass together--to each other alone?"

"Yes."

"To a dear comradeship, and close!... And not too desperate!" she added, as her glance flashed into hidden laughter.

They drank, not daring to look toward each other. And Palla's careless gaze, slowly sweeping the circle, finally met Marya's--as she knew it must. Both smiled, touching each other at once with invisible antennae--always searching, exploring under the glimmering aura what no male ever discovered or comprehended.

There was, in the living room above, a little more music--a song or two before the guests departed.

Marya, a little apart, turned to Shotwell:

"You find our Russian folk-song amusing?"

"Wonderful!"

"If, by any chance, you should remember that I am at home on Thursdays, there is a song I think that might interest you." She let her eyes rest on him with a curious stillness in their depths:

"The song is called _Lada_," she said in a voice so low that he just heard her. The next moment she was taking leave of Palla; kissed her. Vanya enveloped her in her wrap.

* * * * *

Estridge called up a taxi; and presently went away with Ilse.

Very slowly Palla came back to the centre of the room, where Shotwell stood. The scent of flowers was in his nostrils, his throat; the girl herself seemed saturated with their perfume as he took her into his arms.

"So you didn't like my friends, Jim," she ventured.

"Yes, I did."

"I was afraid they might have shocked you."

He said drily: "It isn't a case of being shocked. It's more like being bored."

"Oh. My friends bore you?"

"Their morals do.... Is Ilse that sort, too?"

"That sort?"

"You know what I mean."

"I suppose she is."

"Not inclined to bother herself with the formalities of marriage?"

"I suppose not."

"It's a mischievous, ridiculous, immoral business!" he said hotly. "Why, to look at you--at Ilse--at Miss Lanois----"

"We don't look like very immoral people, do we?" she said, laughingly.

The light raillery in her laughter angered him, and he released her and began to pace the room nervously.

"See here, Palla," he said roughly, "suppose I accept you at your own valuation!"

"I value myself very highly, Jim."

"So do I. That's why I ask you to marry me."

"And I tell you I don't believe in marriage," she rejoined coolly.

"A magistrate can marry us----"

"It makes no difference. A ceremony, civil or religious, is entirely out of the question."

"You mean," he said, incensed, "that you refuse to be married by any law at all?"

"My own law is sufficient."

"Well--well, then," he stammered; "--what--what sort of procedure----"

"None."

"You're crazy," he said; "_you wouldn't do that!"

"If I were in love with you I'd not be afraid."

Her calm candour infuriated him:

"Do you imagine that you and I could ever get away with a situation like that!" he blazed out.

"Why do you become so irritable and excited, Jim? We're not going to try----"

"Damnation! I should think not!" he retorted, so violently that her mouth quivered. But she kept her head averted until the swift emotion was under control.

Then she said in a low voice: "If you really think me immoral, Jim, I can understand your manner toward me. Otherwise----"

"Palla, dear! Forgive me! I'm just worried sick----"

"You funny boy," she said with her quick, frank smile, "I didn't mean to worry you. Listen! It's all quite simple. I care for you very much indeed. I don't mind your--caressing--me--sometimes. But I'm not in love. I just care a lot for you.... But not nearly enough to love you."

"Palla, you're hopeless!"

"Why? Because I am so respectful toward love? Of course I am. A girl who believes as I do can't afford to make a mistake."

"Exactly," he said eagerly, "but under the law, if a mistake is made every woman has her remedy----"

"Her _remedy_! What do you mean? You can't pass one of those roses through the flame of that fire and still have your rose, can you?"

He was silent.

"And that's what happens under _your laws, as well as outside of them. No! I don't love you. Under your law I'd be afraid to marry you. Under mine I'm deathly afraid.... Because--I know--that where love is there can be no fear."

"Is that your answer, Palla?"

"Yes, Jim."

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