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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grain Of Dust: A Novel - Chapter 16
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The Grain Of Dust: A Novel - Chapter 16 Post by :CalGolden Category :Long Stories Author :David Graham Phillips Date :May 2012 Read :1963

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The Grain Of Dust: A Novel - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

Until very recently indeed psychology was not an ology at all but an indefinite something or other "up in the air," the sport of the winds and fogs of transcendental tommy rot. Now, however, science has drawn it down, has fitted it in its proper place as a branch of physiology. And we are beginning to have a clearer understanding of the thoughts and the thought-producing actions of ourselves and our fellow beings. Soon it will be no longer possible for the historian and the novelist, the dramatist, the poet, the painter or sculptor to present in all seriousness as instances of sane human conduct, the aberrations resulting from various forms of disease ranging from indigestion in its mild, temper-breeding forms to acute homicidal or suicidal mania. In that day of greater enlightenment a large body of now much esteemed art will become ridiculous. Practically all the literature of strenuous passion will go by the board or will be relegated to the medical library where it belongs; and it, and the annals of violence found in the daily newspapers of our remote time will be cited as documentary proof of the low economic and hygienic conditions prevailing in that almost barbarous period. For certain it is that the human animal when healthy and well fed is invariably peaceable and kindly and tolerant--up to the limits of selfishness, and even encroaching upon those limits.

Of writing rubbish about love and passion there is no end--and will be no end until the venerable traditional nonsense about those interesting emotions shares the fate that should overtake all the cobwebs of ignorance thickly clogging the windows and walls of the human mind. Of all the fiddle-faddle concerning passion probably none is more shudderingly admired than the notion that one possessed of an overwhelming desire for another longs to destroy that other. It is true there is a form of murderous mania that involves practically all the emotions, including of course the passions--which are as readily subject to derangement as any other part of the human organism. But passion in itself--even when it is so powerful that it dominates the whole life, as in the case of Frederick Norman--passion in itself is not a form of mental derangement in the medical sense. And it does not produce acute selfishness, paranoiac egotism, but a generous and beautiful kind of unselfishness. Not from the first moment of Fred Norman's possession did he wish to injure or in any way to make unhappy the girl he loved. He longed to be happy with her, to have her happy with and through him. He represented his plotting to himself as a plan to make her happier than she ever had been; as for ultimate consequences, he refused to consider them. The most hardened rake, when passion possesses him, wishes all happiness to the woman of his pursuit. Indifference, coldness--the natural hard-heartedness of the normal man--returns only when the inspiration and elevation of passion disappear in satiety. The man or the woman who continues to inspire passion continues to inspire tenderness and considerateness.

So when Norman left Dorothy that Sunday afternoon, he, being a normal if sore beset human being, was soon in the throes of an agonized remorse. There may have been some hypocrisy in it, some struggling to cover up the baser elements in his infatuation for her. What human emotion of upward tendency has not at least a little of the varnish of hypocrisy on certain less presentable spots in it? But in the main it was a creditable, a manly remorse, and not altogether the writhings of jealousy and jealous fear of losing her.

He saw clearly that she was telling the truth, and telling it too gently, when she said he was responsible for her having standards of living which she could not unaided hope to attain. It is a dreadful thing to interfere in the destiny of a fellow being. We do it all the time; we do it lightly. Nevertheless, it is a dreadful thing--not one that ought not to be done, but one that ought to be done only under imperative compulsion, and then with every precaution. He had interfered in Dorothy Hallowell's destiny. He had lifted her out of the dim obscure niche where she was ensconced in comparative contentment. He had lifted her up where she had seen and felt the pleasures of a life of luxury.

"But for me," he said to himself, "she would now be marrying this poor young lawyer, or some chap of the same sort, and would be looking forward to a life of happiness in a little flat or suburban cottage."

If she should refuse his offer--what then? Clearly he ought to do his best to help her to happiness with the other man. He smiled cynically at the moral height to which his logic thus pointed the way. Nevertheless, he did not turn away but surveyed it--and there formed in his mind an impulse to make an effort to attempt that height, if Fate should rule against him with her. "If I were a really decent man," thought he, "I'd sit down now and write her that I would not marry her but would give her young man a friendly hand in the law if she wished to marry him." But he knew that such utter generosity was far beyond him. "Only a hero could do it," said he; he added with what a sentimentalist might have called a return of his normal cynicism, "only a hero who really in the bottom of his heart didn't especially want the girl." And a candid person of experience might possibly admit that there was more truth than cynicism in his look askance at the grand army of martyrs of renunciation, most of whom have simply given up something they didn't really want.

"If she accepts me, I'll make it impossible for her not to be happy," he said to himself, in all the fine unselfishness of passion--not divine unselfishness but human--not the kind we read about and pretend to have--and get a savage attack of bruised vanity if we are accused of not having it--no, but just the kind we have and show in our daily lives--the unselfishness of longing to make happy those whom it would make us happier to see happy. "She may think she cares for this young clerk--" so ran his thoughts--"but she doesn't know her own mind. When she is mine, I'll take her in hand as a gardener does a delicate rare flower--and, by Heaven, how I shall make her blossom and bloom!"

It would hardly be possible for a human being to pass a stormier night than was that night of his. Alternations between hope and despair--fantastic pictures of future with and without her, wild pleadings with her--those delirious transports to which our imaginations give way if we happen to be blessed and cursed with imaginations--in the security of the darkness and aloneness of night and bed. And through it all he was tormented body and soul by her loveliness--her hair, her skin, her eyes, the shy, slender graces of her form--He tossed about until his bed was so wildly disheveled that he had to rise and remake it.

When day came and the first mail, there was her letter on the salver of the boy entering the room. He reached for it with eager, trembling arm, drew back. "Put it on the table," he said.

The boy left. He was alone. Leaning upon his elbow in the bed he stared at the letter with hollow, terrified eyes. It contained his destiny. If she accepted, he would go up, for his soul sickness would be cured. If she refused, he would cease to struggle. He rose, took from a locked drawer a bottle of rye whisky. He poured a tall glass--the kind called a bar glass--half full, drank it straight down without a pause or a quiver. The shock brought him up standing. He looked and acted like his former self as he went to the table, took the letter, opened it, and read:


"I am willing to marry you, if you really want me. I am so tired of struggling, and I don't see anything but dark ahead.--D. H."


Norman struggled over to the bed, threw himself down, flat upon his back, arms and legs extended wide and whole body relaxed. He felt the blood whirl up into his brain like the great red and black tongues of flame and smoke in a conflagration, and then he slept soundly until nearly one o'clock.

To an outsider there would have been a world of homely commonplace pathos in that little letter of the girl's if read aright, that is to say, if read with what was between the lines supplied. It is impossible to live in cities any length of time and with any sort of eyes without learning the bitter unromantic truths about poverty--city poverty. In quiet, desolate places one may be poor, very poor, without much conscious suffering. There are no teasing contrasts, no torturing temptations. But in a city, if one knows anything at all of the possibilities of civilized life, of the joys and comforts of good food, clothing, and shelter, of theater and concert and excursion, of entertaining and being entertained, poverty becomes a hell. In the country, in the quiet towns, the innocent people wonder at the greediness of the more comfortable kinds of city people, at their love of money, their incessant dwelling upon it, their reverence for those who have it, their panic-like flight from those who have it not. They wonder how folk, apparently human, can be so inhuman. Let them be careful how they judge. If you discover any human being anywhere acting as you think a human being should not, investigate all the circumstances, look thoroughly into all the causes of his or her conduct, before you condemn him or her as inhuman, unworthy of your kinship and your sympathy.

In her brief letter the girl showed that, young though she was and not widely experienced in life, she yet had seen the horrors of city poverty, how it poisons and kills all the fine emotions. She had seen many a loving young couple start out confidently, with a few hundred dollars of debt for furniture--had seen the love fade and wither, shrivel, die--had seen appear peevishness and hatred and unfaithfulness and all the huge, foul weeds that choke the flowers of married life. She knew what her lover's salary would buy--and what it would not buy--for two. She could imagine their fate if there should be three or more. She showed frankly her selfishness of renunciation. But there could be read between the lines--concealed instead of vaunted--perhaps unsuspected--her unselfishness of renunciation for the sake of her lover and for the sake of the child or the children that might be. In our love of moral sham and glitter, we overlook the real beauties of human morality; we even are so dim or vulgar sighted that we do not see them when they are shown to us.

As Norman awakened, he reached for the telephone, said to the boy in charge of the club exchange: "Look in the book, find the number of a lawyer named Branscombe, and connect me with his office." After some confusion and delay he got the right office, but Dorothy was out at lunch. He left a message that she was to call him up at the club as soon as she came in. He was shaving when the bell rang.

He was at the receiver in a bound. "Is it you?" he said.

"Yes," came in her quiet, small voice.

"Will you resign down there to-day? Will you marry me this afternoon?"

A brief silence, then--"Yes."

Thus it came about that they met at the City Hall license bureau, got their license, and half an hour later were married at the house of a minister in East Thirty-third Street, within a block of the Subway station. He was feverish, gay, looked years younger than his thirty-seven. She was quiet, dim, passive, neither grave nor gay, but going through her part without hesitation, with much the same patient, plodding expression she habitually bore as she sat working at her machine--as if she did not quite understand, but was doing her best and hoped to get through not so badly.

"I've had nothing to eat," said he as they came out of the parsonage.

"Nor I," said she.

"We'll go to Delmonico's," said he, and hailed a passing taxi.

On the way, he sitting in one corner explained to her, shrunk into the other corner: "I can confess now that I married you under false pretenses. I am not prosperous, as I used to be. To be brief and plain, I'm down and out, professionally."

She did not move. Apparently she did not change expression. Yet he, speaking half banteringly, felt some frightful catastrophe within her. "You are--poor?" she said in her usual quiet way.

"_We are poor," corrected he. "I have at present only a thousand dollars a month--a little more, but not enough to talk about."

She did not move or change expression. Yet he felt that her heart, her blood were going on again.

"Are you--angry?" he asked.

"A thousand dollars a month seems an awful lot of money to me," she said.

"It's nothing--nothing to what we'll soon have. Trust me." And back into his eyes flashed their former look. "I've been sick. I'm well again. I shall get what I want. If you want anything, you've only to ask for it. I'll get it. I know how. . . . I don't prey, myself--I've no fancy for the brutal sports. But I teach lions how to prey, and I make them pay for the lessons." He laughed with an effervescing of young vitality and self-confidence that made him look handsome and powerful. "In the future they'll have to pay still higher prices."

She was looking at him with weary, wondering, pathetic eyes that gazed from the pallor of her dead-white face mysteriously.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"I was listening," replied she.

"Doesn't it make you happy--what you are going to have?"

"No," replied she. "But it makes me content."

With eyes suddenly suffused, he took her hand--so gently. "Dorothy," he said, "you will try to love me?"

"I'll try," said she. "You'll be kind to me?"

"I couldn't be anything else," he cried. And in a gust of passion he caught her to his breast and kissed her triumphantly. "I love you--and you're mine--mine!"

She released herself with the faint insistent push that seemed weak, but always accomplished its purpose. Her lip was trembling. "You said you'd be kind," she murmured.

He gazed at her with a baffled expression. "Oh--I understand," he said. "And I shall be kind. But I must teach you to love me."

Her trembling lip steadied. "You must be careful or you may teach me to hate you," said she.

He studied her in a puzzled way, laughed. "What a mystery you are!" he cried with raillery. "Are you child or are you woman? No matter. We shall be happy."

The taxicab was swinging to the curb. In the restaurant he ordered an enormous meal. And he ate enormously, and drank in due proportion. She ate and drank a good deal herself--a good deal for her. And the results were soon apparent in a return of the spirits that are normal to twenty-one years, regardless of what may be lurking in the heart, in a dark corner, to come forth and torment when there is nothing to distract the attention.

"We shall have to live quietly for a while," said he. "Of course you must have clothes-at once. I'll take you shopping to-morrow." He laughed grimly. "Just at present we can get only what we pay cash for. Still, you won't need much. Later on I'll take you over to Paris. Does that attract you?"

Her eyes shone. "How soon?" she asked.

"I can tell you in a week or ten days." He became abstracted for a moment. "I can't understand how I let them get me down so easily--that is, I can't understand it now. I suppose it's just the difference between being weak with illness and strong with health." His eyes concentrated on her. "Is it really you?" he cried gaily. "And are you really mine? No wonder I feel strong! It was always that way with me. I never could leave a thing until I had conquered it."

She gave him a sweet smile. "I'm not worth all the trouble you seem to have taken about me," said she.

He laughed; for he knew the intense vanity so pleasantly hidden beneath her shy and modest exterior. "On the contrary," said he good-humoredly, "you in your heart think yourself worth any amount of trouble. It's a habit we men have got you women into. And you--One of the many things that fascinate me in you is your supreme self-control. If the king were to come down from his throne and fall at your feet, you'd take it as a matter of course."

She gazed away dreamily. And he understood that her indifference to matters of rank and wealth and power was not wholly vanity but was, in part at least, due to a feeling that love was the only essential. Nor did he wonder how she was reconciling this belief of high and pure sentiment with what she was doing in marrying him. He knew that human beings are not consistent, cannot be so in a universe that compels them to face directly opposite conditions often in the same moment. But just as all lines are parallel in infinity, so all actions are profoundly consistent when referred to the infinitely broad standard of the necessity that every living thing shall look primarily to its own well being. Disobedience to this fundamental carries with it inevitable punishment of disintegration and death; and those catastrophes are serious matters when one has but the single chance at life, that will be repeated never again in all the eternities.

After their late lunch or early dinner, they drove to her lodgings. He went up with her and helped her to pack--not a long process, as she had few belongings. He noted that the stockings and underclothes she took from the bureau drawers were in anything but good condition, that the half dozen dresses she took from the closet and folded on the couch were about done for. Presently she said, cheerfully and with no trace of false shame:

"You see, I'm pretty nearly in rags."

"Oh, that's soon arranged," replied he. "Why bother to take these things? Why not give them to the maid?"

She debated with herself. "I think you're right," she decided. "Yes, I'll give them to Jennie."

"The underclothes, too," he urged. "And the hats."

It ended in her having left barely enough loosely to fill the bottom of a small trunk with two trays.

They drove to the Knickerbocker Hotel, and he took a small suite, one of the smallest and least luxurious in the house, for with all his desire to make her feel the contrast of her change of circumstances sharply, he could not forget how limited his income was, and how unwise it would be to have to move in a few days to humbler quarters. He hoped that the rooms, englamoured by the hotel's general air of costly luxury, would sufficiently impress her. And while she gave no strong indication but accepted everything in her wonted quiet, passive manner, he was shrewd enough to see that she was content. "To-morrow," he said to himself, "after she has done some shopping, the last regret will leave her, and her memory of that clerk will begin to fade fast. I'll give her too much else to think about."

* * * * *

The following morning, when they faced each other at breakfast in their sitting room, he glanced at her from time to time in wonder and terror. She looked not merely insignificant, but positively homely. Her skin had a sickly pallor; her hair seemed to be of many different and disagreeable shades of uninteresting dead yellow. Her eyes suggested faded blue china dishes, with colorless lashes and reddened edges of the lids. Her lips had lost their rosy freshness, her teeth their sparkling whiteness.

His heavy heart seemed to be resting nauseously upon the pit of his stomach. Was his infatuation sheer delusion, with no basis of charm in her at all? Was she, indeed, nothing but this unattractive, faded little commonplaceness?--a poor specimen of an inferior order of working girl? What an awakening! And she was his _wife_!--was his companion for the yet more brilliant career he had resolved and was planning! He must introduce her everywhere, must see the not to be concealed amazement in the faces of his acquaintances, must feel the cruel covert laughter and jeering at his weak folly! Was there ever in history or romance a parallel to such fatuity as his? Why, people would be right in thinking him a sham, a mere bluffer at the high and strong qualities he was reputed to have.

Had Norman been, in fact, the man of ice and iron the compulsions of a career under the social system made him seem, the homely girl opposite him that morning would speedily have had something to think about other than her unhappiness of the woman who has given her person to one man and her heart to another. Instead, the few words he addressed to her were all gentleness and forbearance. Stronger than his chagrin was his pity for her--the poor, unconscious victim of his mad hallucination. If she thought about the matter at all, she assumed that he was still the slave of her charms--for, the florid enthusiasm of man's passion inevitably deludes the woman into fancying it objective instead of wholly subjective; and, only the rare very wise woman, after much experience, learns to be suspicious of the validity of her own charms and to concentrate upon keeping up the man's delusions.

At last he rose and kissed her on the brow and let his hand rest gently on her shoulder--what a difference between those caresses and the caresses that had made her beg him to be "kind" to her! Said he:

"Do you mind if I leave you alone for a while? I ought to go to the club and have the rest of my things packed and sent. I'll not be gone long--about an hour."

"Very well," said she lifelessly.

"I'll telephone my office that I'll not be down to-day."

With an effort she said, "There's no reason for doing that. I don't want to interfere with your business."

"I'm neglecting nothing. And that shopping must be done."

She made no reply, but went to the window, and from the height looked down and out upon the mighty spread of the city. He observed her a moment with a dazed pitying expression, took his hat and departed.

It was nearly two hours before he got together sufficient courage to return. He had been hoping--had been saying to himself with vigorous effort at confidence--that he had simply seen one more of the many transformations, each of which seemed to present her as a wholly different personality. When he should see her again, she would have wiped out the personality that had shocked and saddened him, would appear as some new variety of enchantress, perhaps even more potent over his senses than ever before. But a glance as he entered demolished that hope. She was no different than when he left. Evidently she had been crying, and spasms of that sort always accentuate every unloveliness. He did not try to nerve himself to kiss her, but said:

"It'll not take you long to get ready?"

She moved to rise from her languid rest upon the sofa. She sank back. "Perhaps we'd better not go to-day," suggested she.

"Don't you feel well?" he asked, and his tone was more sympathetic than it would have been had his sympathy been genuine.

"Not very," replied she, with a faint deprecating smile. "And not very--not very----"

"Not very what?" he said, in a tone of encouragement.

"Not very happy," she confessed. "I'm afraid I've made a--a dreadful mistake."

(Illustration: "Evidently she had been crying.")

He looked at her in silence. She could have said nothing that would have caused a livelier response within himself. His cynicism noted the fact that while he had mercifully concealed his discontent, she was thinking only of herself. But he did not blame her. It was only the familiar habit of the sex, bred of man's assiduous cultivation of its egotism. He said: "Oh, you'll feel differently about it later. Let's get some fresh air and see what the shops have to offer."

A pause, then she, timidly: "Would you mind very much if I--if I didn't--go on?"

"You mean, if you left me?"

She nodded without looking at him. He could not understand himself, but as he sat observing her, so young, so inexperienced and so undesirable, a pity of which he would not have dreamed his nature capable welled up in him, choking his throat with sobs he could scarcely restrain and filling his eyes with tears he had secretly to wipe away. And he felt himself seized of a sense of responsibility for her as strong in its solemn, still way as any of the paroxysms of his passion had been.

He said: "My dear--you mustn't decide anything so important to you in a hurry."

A tremor passed over her, and he thought she was going to dissolve in hysterics. But she exhibited once more that marvelous and mysterious self-control, whose secret had interested and baffled him. She said in her dim, quiet way:

"It seems to me I just can't stay on."

"You can always go, you know. Why not try it a few days?"

He could feel the trend of her thoughts, and in the way things often amuse us without in the least moving us to wish to laugh, he was amused by noting that she was trying to bring herself to stay on, out of consideration for _his feelings! He said with a kind of paternal tenderness:

"Whenever you want to go, I am willing to arrange things for you--so that you needn't worry about money. But I feel that, as I am older than you, I ought to do all I can to keep you from making a mistake you might soon regret."

She studied him dubiously. He saw that she--naturally enough--did not believe in his disinterestedness, that she hadn't a suspicion of his change, or, rather collapse, of feeling. She said:

"If you ask it, I'll stay a while. But you must promise to--to be kind to me."

There was only gentleness in his smile. But what a depth of satirical self-mockery and amusement at her innocent young egotism it concealed! "You'll never have reason to speak of that again, my dear," said he.

"I--can--trust you?" she said.

"Absolutely," replied he. "I'll have another room opened into this suite. Would you like that?"

"If you--if you don't mind."

He stood up with sudden boyish buoyance. "Now--let's go shopping. Let's amuse ourselves."

She rose with alacrity. She eyed him uncertainly, then flung her arms round his neck and kissed him.

"You are _so good to me!" she cried. "And I'm not a bit nice."

He did not try to detain her, but sent her to finish dressing, with an encouraging pat on the shoulder and a cheerful, "Don't worry about yourself--or me."

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