The House of the Vampire/XIV
It was the third day after their meeting. Hour by hour their intimacy had increased. Ethel was sitting in a large wicker-chair. She restlessly fingered her parasol, mechanically describing magic circles in the sand. Ernest lay at her feet. With his knees clasped between his hands, he gazed into her eyes.
“Why are you trying so hard to make love to me?” the woman asked, with the half-amused smile with which the Eve near thirty receives the homage of a boy. There is an element of insincerity in that smile, but it is a weapon of defence against love's artillery.
Sometimes, indeed, the pleading in the boy's eyes and the cry of the blood pierces the woman's smiling superiority. She listens, loves and loses.
Ethel Brandenbourg was listening, but the idea of love had not yet entered into her mind. Her interest in Ernest was due in part to his youth and the trembling in his voice when he spoke of love. But what probably attracted her most powerfully was the fact that he intimately knew the man who still held her woman's heart in the hollow of his hand. It was half in play, therefore, that she had asked him that question.
Why did he make love to her? He did not know. Perhaps it was the irresistible desire to be petted which young poets share with domesticated cats. But what should he tell her? Polite platitudes were out of place between them.
Besides he knew the penalty of all tender entanglements. Women treat love as if it were an extremely tenuous wire that can be drawn out indefinitely. This is a very expensive process. It costs us the most precious, the only irretrievable thing in the universe—time. And to him time was song; for money he did not care. The Lord had hallowed his lips with rhythmic speech; only in the intervals of his singing might he listen to the voice of his heart—strangest of all watches, that tells the time not by minutes and hours, but by the coming and going of love.
The woman beside him seemed to read his thoughts.
“Child, child,” she said, “why will you toy with love? Like Jehovah, he is a jealous god, and nothing but the whole heart can placate him. Woe to the woman who takes a poet for a lover. I admit it is fascinating, but it is playing va banque. In fact, it is fatal. Art or love will come to harm. No man can minister equally to both. A genuine poet is incapable of loving a woman.”
“Pshaw! You exaggerate. Of course, there is a measure of truth in what you say, but it is only one side of the truth, and the truth, you know, is always Janus-faced. In fact, it often has more than two faces. I can assure you that I have cared deeply for the women to whom my love-poetry was written. And you will not deny that it is genuine.”
“God forbid! Only you have been using the wrong preposition. You should have said that it was written at them.”
Ernest stared at her in child-like wonder.
“By Jove! you are too devilishly clever!” he exclaimed. After a little silence he said not without hesitation: “And do you apply your theory to all artists, or only to us makers of rhyme?”
“To all,” she replied.
He looked at her questioningly.
“Yes,” she said, with a new sadness in her voice, “I, too, have paid the price.”
“That was the sacrifice.”
“Perhaps you have chosen the better part,” Ernest said without conviction.
“No,” she replied, “my tribute was brought in vain.”
This she said calmly, but Ernest knew that her words were of tragic import. “You love him still?” he observed simply. Ethel made no reply. Sadness clouded her face like a veil or like a grey mist over the face of the waters. Her eyes went out to the sea, following the sombre flight of the sea-mews.
In that moment he could have taken her in his arms and kissed her with infinite tenderness. But tenderness between man and woman is like a match in a powder-magazine. The least provocation, and an amorous explosion will ensue, tumbling down the card-houses of platonic affection. If he yielded to the impulse of the moment, the wine of the springtide would set their blood afire, and from the flames within us there is no escape.
“Come, come,” she said, “you do not love me.”
“Ah!” she cried triumphantly, “how many sonnets would you give for me? If you were a usurer in gold instead of in rhyme, I would ask how many dollars. But it is unjust to pay in a coin that we value little. To a man starving in gold mines, a piece of bread weighs more than all the treasures of the earth. To you, I warrant your poems are the standard of appreciation. How many would you give for me? One, two, three?
“Because you think love would repay you with compound interest,” she observed merrily. He laughed.
And when love turns to laughter the danger is passed for the moment.