Between Friends

Robert W. Chambers


When she came again to the studio, she was different, subdued, evading, avoiding, smiling a little in her flushed diffidence at his gay ease of manner--or assumption of both ease and gaiety. 
          He was inclined to rally her, tease her, but her reticence was not all embarrassment. The lightest contact, the slightest caress from him, added a seriousness to her face, making it very lovely under its heightened color, and strangely childlike. 
          Model and master they would have remained no longer had it been for him to say, he desiring now to make it a favor and concession on her part to aid him professionally, she gravely insisting on professionalism as the basis of whatever entente might develop between them, as well as the only avowed excuse for her presence there alone with him. 
          "Please.  It's respectable," she insisted her agreeable, modulated voice. "I had rather the reason for my coming here be business--whatever else happens." 
          "What has happened," he said, balancing a handful of wet clay in one hand and looking laughingly up at her, where she stood on the model-stand, "is that a pretty girl strolled in here one day and held up a mirror to a solemn ass who was stalking theatrically through life. That solemn ass is very grateful for the glimpse he had of himself. He behaved gratefully, didn't he?" 
          "Very," she said with a forced smile. 
          "Do you object to the manner in which he expressed his gratitude?" 
          She hung her head. 
          "No," she said. 
          After a while she raised her eyes, her head still lowered.  He was working, darkly absorbed as usual in the plastic mass under his fingers. 
          She watched him curiously, not his hands, now, but his lean, intent face, striving to penetrate that masculine mask, trying to understand. Varying and odd reflections and emotions possessed her in turn, and passed--wonder, bewilderment at herself, at him; a slight sense of fear, then a brief and sudden access of shyness, succeeded by the by glow of an emotion new and strange and deep. And this, in turn, by vague bewilderment again, in which there was both a hint of fear, and a tinge of something exquisite. 
          Within herself she was dimly conscious that a certain gaiety, an irresponsibility and lightness had died out in her, perhaps permanently, yet leaving no void. What it was that replaced these she could not name--she only was conscious that if these had been subdued by a newer knowledge, with a newer seriousness, this unaccustomed gravity had left her heart no less tender, and had deepened her capacity for emotion to depths as profound and unexplored as the sudden mystery of their discovery by herself. 
          Always, now, while she posed, she was looking at him with a still intentness, as though he really wore a mask and she, breathlessly vigilant, watched for the moment when he might forget and lift it. 
          But during the weeks that followed, if the mask were indeed only the steady preoccupation that his visage wore, she seemed to learn nothing more about him when his features lost their dark absorption and he caught her eye and smiled. No, the smile revealed nothing except another mask under the more serious cast of concentration--only another disguise that covered whatever this man might truly be deeper down--this masculine and unknown invader of frontiers surrendered ere she had understood they were even besieged. 
          And during these weeks in early spring their characteristics, even characters, seemed to have shifted curiously and become reversed; his was now the light, irresponsible, half-mocking badinage--almost boyishly boisterous at times, as, for instance, when he stepped forward after the pose and swung her laughingly from the model-platform to her corner on the sofa. 
          "You pretty and clever little thing," he said, "why are you becoming so serious and absent-minded?" 
          "Am I becoming so?" 
          "You are.  You oughtn't to: you've made a new and completely different man of me." 
          As though that were an admirable achievement, or even of any particular importance. And yet she seemed to think it was both of these when, resting against him, within the circle of his arm, still shy and silent under the breathless poignancy of an emotion which ever seemed to sound within her depths unsuspected. 
          But when he said that she had made a new and completely different man of him, she remembered his low-voiced when that change impended as he held her by her wrists a moment, then dropped them. He had said, half to himself: "You should have let me alone!" 
          Sometimes at noon she remembered this when they went out for luncheon realizing they would never have been seated together in a restaurant had she not satisfied her curiosity. She should have let him alone; she knew that. She tried to wish that she had--tried to regret everything, anything; and could not, even when within her the faint sense of alarm awoke amid the softly unchangeable unreality of these last six weeks of spring. 
          Was this then really love?--this drifting through alternating dreams of shyness, tenderness, suspense, pierced at moments by tiny flashes of fear, as lightning flickers, far buried in softly shrouded depths of cloud? 
          She had long periods of silent and absorbed dreaming, conscious only that she dreamed, but not of the dream itself. 
          She was aware, too, of a curious loneliness within her, and dimly understood that it was the companion of a lifetime she was missing--her conscience. Where was it? Had it gone? Had it died? Were the little, inexplicable flashes of fear proof of its disintegration? Or its immortal vitality? 
          Dead, dormant, departed, she knew not which, she was dully aware of its loss--dimly and childishly troubled that she could remember nothing to be sorry for. And there was so much. 
          Men in his profession who knew him began to look askance at him and her, amused or otherwise, according to their individual characters. 
          That Cecile White went about more or less with the sculptor Drene was a nine days' gossip among circles familiar to them both, and was forgotten--as are all wonders--in nine days. 
          Some of his acquaintances recalled what had been supposed to be the tragedy of his life, mentioning a woman's name, and a man's--Drene's closest friend. But gossip does not last long among the busy--not that the busy are incapable of gossip, but they finish with it quickly, having other matters to think about. 
          Even Quair, after recovering from his wonder that his own condescending advances had been ignored, bestowed his fatuously inflammable attentions elsewhere. 
          He had been inclined to complain one day in the studio, when he and Guilder visited Drene professionally; and Guilder looked at his dapper confrere in surprise and slight disgust; and Drene, at first bored, grew irritable. 
          "What are you talking about?" he said sharply. 
          "I'm talking about Cecile White," continued Quair, looking rather oddly at the sculptor out of his slightly prominent eyes. "I didn't suppose you could be interested in any woman--not that I mind your interfering with any little affair between Cecile and me--" 
          "There wasn't any." 
          "I beg your pardon, Drene--" 
          "There wasn't any!" repeated Drene, with curt contempt.  "Don't talk about her, anyway." 
          "You mean I'm not to talk about a common artist's model--" 
          "Not that way." 
          "Oh.  Is she yours?" 
          "She isn't anybody's, I fancy.  Therefore, let her alone, or I'll throw you out of doors." 
          Quair said to Guilder after they had departed: 
          "Fancy old Drene playing about with that girl on a strictly pious basis! He's doubtless dub enough to waste his time. But what's in it for her?" 
          "Perhaps a little unaccustomed masculine decency." 
          "Everybody is decent enough to her as far as I know." 
          "Including yourself?" 
          "Certainly, including myself," retorted Quair, adding naively: "Besides, I knew any attempt at philandering would be time wasted." 
          "Yet you tried it," mused Guilder, entering his big touring car and depositing a bundle of blue-prints and linen tracing paper at his own ponderous feet. Quair followed him and spoke briefly to the chauffeur, then: 
          "Tried nothing," he said.  "A little chaff, that's all.  When it comes to a man like Jack Graylock going so far as to ask her to marry him, good night, nurse! Nothing doing, even for me." 
          "Even for you," repeated Guilder in his moderate and always modulated voice. "Well, if she's escaped you and Graylock, she's beyond any danger from Drene, I fancy." 
          Quair smiled appreciatively, as though a delicate compliment had been offered him. Several times on the way to call on Graylock he insisted on stopping the car at as many celebrated cafes. Guilder patiently awaited him in the car and each time Quair emerged from the cafe bar a little more flushed and a trifle jauntier than when he had entered. 
          He was a man so perfectly attired and so scrupulously fastidious about his person that Guilder often speculated as to just why Quair always seemed to him a trifle soiled. 
          Now, looking him over as he climbed into the car, unusually red in the face, breathing out the aroma of spirits through his little, pinched nostrils, a faint sensation of disgust came over the senior member of the firm as though the junior member were physically unclean. 
          "That's about ten drinks since luncheon," he remarked, as the car rolled on down Fifth Avenue. 
          Quair, who usually grew disagreeably familiar when mellow, poked his gloved thumb: 
          "You're a merry old cock, aren't you?" he inquired genially, "--like a pig's wrist! If I hadn't the drinking of the entire firm to do, who'd ever talk about Guilder and Quair, architects?" 
          It was common rumor that Quair did his brilliant work only when "soused." And he never appeared to be perfectly sober, even when he was. 
          Graylock received them in his office--a big, reckless-eyed, handsome man, with Broad Street written all over him and "danger" etched in every deepened line of his face. 
          "Well, how about that business of mine?" he inquired.  "It's all right to keep me waiting, of course, while you and Quair here match for highballs at the Ritz." 
          "I had to see Drene--that's why we are late," explained Guilder. 
          "We're ready to go ahead and let your contracts for you--" 
          "Drene?" interrupted Graylock, looking straight at Guilder with a curious and staring intensity. "Why drag Drene into an excuse?" 
          "Because we went to his studio," said Guilder.  "Now about letting the contracts--" 
          "Were you at Drene's studio?" 
          "Yes.  He's doing the groups for the new opera for us." 
          Quair, watching Graylock, was seized with a malicious impulse: 
          "Neat little skirt he has up there--that White girl," he remarked, seating himself on Graylock's polished table. 
          A dull flush stained Graylock's cheekbones, and his keen eyes turned on Quair. The latter lighted a cigarette, expelled the smoke in two thin streams from his abnormally narrow nostrils. 
          "Some skirt," he repeated.  "And it looks as though old Drene had her number--" 
          Guilder's level voice interrupted: 
          "The contracts are ready to be--" 
          But Graylock, not heeding, and perhaps not hearing, and looking all the time at Quair, said slowly: 
          "Drene isn't that kind. . . .  Is he?" 
          "Our kind, you mean?" inquired Quair, with a malice so buried under flippancy that the deliberate effrontery passed for it with Graylock. Which amused Quair for a moment, but the satisfaction was not sufficient. He desired that Graylock should feel the gaff. 
          "Drene," he said, "is one of those fussers who jellify when hurled on their necks--the kind that ask that kind of girl to marry them after she's turned down everything else they suggest." 
          Graylock's square jaw tightened and his steady eyes seemed to grow even paler; but Quair, as though perfectly unconscious of this man's record with the wife of his closest friend, and of the rumors which connected him so seriously with Cecile White, swung his leg unconcernedly, where it dangled over the table's edge, and smiled frankly and knowingly upon Graylock: 
          "There's always somebody to marry that sort of girl; all mush isn't on the breakfast table. When you and I are ready to quit, Graylock, Providence has created a species of man who settles our bills." 
          He threw back his head, inhaled the smoke of his cigarette, sent two thin streams through his nose. 
          "Maybe Drene may marry her himself.  But--I don't believe he'll have to. . . . Now, about those contracts--" he affected a yawn, "--go on and tell him, Guilder," he added, his words distorted by another yawn. 
          He stepped down to the floor from his perch on the table, stretched his arms, looking affably all the while at Graylock, who had never moved a muscle. 
          "I believe you had a run-in with that Cecile girl once, didn't you, Graylock? Like the rest of us, eh? Oh, well--my hat off to old Drene if he wins out. I hold no malice. After all, Graylock, what's a woman between friends?" 
          And he nodded gaily at Graylock and sauntered leisurely to the window. 
          And kept his back turned, fearful of exploding with laughter in the very face of the man who had been staring at him out of pale, unchanging eyes so steadily and so long. 
          Guilder's patient, bored, but moderate voice was raised once more: 
          "In regard to the letting of these contracts--" 
          But Graylock, staring at Quair's back, neither heeded nor heard him, for his brain was still ringing with the mockery of Quair's words--"What is a woman between friends?" And now, for the first time, he was beginning to understand what the answer might be. 


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