The House of the Vampire/XV
Thus three weeks passed without apparent change in their relations. Ernest possessed a personal magnetism that, always emanating from him, was felt most deeply when withdrawn. He was at all times involuntarily exerting his power, which she ever resisted, always on the alert, always warding off.
When at last pressure of work made his immediate departure for New York imperative, he had not apparently gained the least ground. But Ethel knew in her heart that she was fascinated, if not in love. The personal fascination was supplemented by a motherly feeling toward Ernest that, sensuous in essence, was in itself not far removed from love. She struggled bravely and with external success against her emotions, never losing sight of the fact that twenty and thirty are fifty.
Increasingly aware of her own weakness, she constantly attempted to lead the conversation into impersonal channels, speaking preferably of his work.
“Tell me,” she said, negligently fanning herself, “what new inspiration have you drawn from your stay at the seaside?”
“Why,” he exclaimed enthusiastically, “volumes and volumes of it. I shall write the great novel of my life after I am once more quietly installed at Riverside Drive.”
“The great American novel?” she rejoined. “Perhaps.”
“Who will be your hero—Clarke?”
“There was a slight touch of malice in her words, or rather in the pause between the penultimate word and the last. Ernest detected its presence, and knew that her love for Reginald was dead. Stiff and cold it lay in her heart's chamber—beside how many others?—all emboxed in the coffin of memory.
“No,” he replied after a while, a little piqued by her suggestion, “Clarke is not the hero. What makes you think that he casts a spell on everything I do?”
“Dear child,” she replied, “I know him.
He cannot fail to impress his powerful personality upon all with whom he comes in contact, to the injury of their intellectual independence. Moreover, he is so brilliant and says everything so much better than anybody else, that by his very splendor he discourages effort in others. At best his influence will shape your development according to the tenets of his mind—curious, subtle and corrupted. You will become mentally distorted, like one of those hunchback Japanese trees, infinitely wrinkled and infinitely grotesque, whose laws of growth are not determined by nature, but by the diseased imagination of the East.”
“I am no weakling,” Ernest asserted, “and your picture of Clarke is altogether out of perspective. His splendid successes are to me a source of constant inspiration. We have some things in common, but I realise that it is along entirely different lines that success will come to me. He has never sought to influence me, in fact, I never received the smallest suggestion from him.” Here the Princess Marigold seemed to peer at him through the veil of the past, but he waved her aside. “As for my story,” he continued, “you need not go so far out of your way to find the leading character?”
“Who can it be?” Ethel remarked, with a merry twinkle, “You?”
“Ethel,” he said sulkingly, “be serious. You know that it is you.”
“I am immensely flattered,” she replied. “Really, nothing pleases me better than to be immortalised in print, since I have little hope nowadays of perpetuating my name by virtue of pencil or brush. I have been put into novels before and am consumed with curiosity to hear the plot of yours.”
“If you don't mind, I had rather not tell you just yet,” Ernest said. “It's going to be called Leontina—that's you. But all depends on the treatment. You know it doesn't matter much what you say so long as you say it well. That's what counts. At any rate, any indication of the plot at this stage would be decidedly inadequate.”
“I think you are right,” she ventured. “By all means choose your own time to tell me. Let's talk of something else. Have you written anything since your delightful book of verse last spring? Surely now is your singing season. By the time we are thirty the springs of pure lyric passion are usually exhausted.”
Ethel's inquiry somehow startled him. In truth, he could find no satisfactory answer. A remark relative to his play—Clarke's play— rose to the threshold of his lips, but he almost bit his tongue
as soon as he realised that the strange delusion which had possessed him that night still dominated the undercurrents of his cerebration. No, he had accomplished but little during the last few months—at least, by way of creative literature. So he replied that he had made money. “That is something,” he said. “Besides, who can turn out a masterpiece every week? An artist's brain is not a machine, and in the respite from creative work I have gathered strength for the future. But,” he added, slightly annoyed, “you are not listening.”
His exclamation brought her back from the train of thoughts that his words had suggested. For in his reasoning she had recognised the same arguments that she had hourly repeated to herself in defence of her inactivity when she was living under the baneful influence of Reginald Clarke. Yes, baneful; for the first time she dared to confess it to herself. In a flash the truth dawned upon her that it was not her love alone, but something else, something irresistable and very mysterious, that had dried up the well of creation in her. Could it be that the same power was now exerting its influence upon the struggling soul of this talented boy? Rack her brains as she might, she could not definitely formulate her apprehensions and a troubled look came into her eyes.
“Ethel,” the boy repeated, impatiently, “why are you not listening? Do you realise that I must leave you in half an hour?”
She looked at him with deep tenderness. Something like a tear lent a soft radiance to her large child-like eyes.
Ernest saw it and was profoundly moved. In that moment he loved her passionately.
“Foolish boy,” she said softly; then, lowering her voice to a whisper: “You may kiss me before you go.”
His lips gently touched hers, but she took his head between her hands and pressed her mouth upon his in a long kiss.
Ernest drew back a little awkwardly. He had not been kissed like this before.
“Poet though you are,” Ethel whispered, “you have not yet learned to kiss.” She was deeply agitated when she noticed that his hand was fumbling for the watch in his vest- pocket. She suddenly released him, and said, a little hurt: “No, you must not miss your train. Go by all means.”
Vainly Ernest remonstrated with her. “Go to him,” she said, and again, “go to him,” With a heavy heart the boy obeyed. He waved his hat to her once more from below, and then rapidly disappeared in the crowd. For a moment strange misgivings cramped her heart, and something within her called out to him: “Do not go! Do not return to that house.” But no sound issued from her lips. Worldly wisdom had sealed them, had stifled the inner voice. And soon the boy's golden head was swallowed up in the distance.