The freakish little leader of the orchestra, newly imported from Sicily to New York, tossed his conductor's wand excitedly through the air, drowning with musical thunders the hum of conversation and the clatter of plates.
Yet neither his apish demeanour nor the deafening noises that responded to every movement of his agile body detracted attention from the figure of Reginald Clarke and the young man at his side as they smilingly wound their way to the exit.
The boy's expression was pleasant, with an inkling of wistfulness, while the soft glimmer of his lucid eyes betrayed the poet and the dreamer. The smile of Reginald Clarke was the smile of a conqueror. A suspicion of silver in his crown of dark hair only added dignity to his bearing, while the infinitely ramified lines above the heavy-set mouth spoke at once of subtlety and of strength. Without stretch of the imagination one might have likened him to a Roman cardinal of the days of the Borgias, who had miraculously stepped forth from the time-stained canvas and slipped into twentieth century evening-clothes.
With the affability of complete self-possession he nodded in response to greetings from all sides, inclining his head with special politeness to a young woman whose sea-blue eyes were riveted upon his features with a look of mingled hate and admiration.
The woman, disregarding his silent salutation, continued to stare at him wild-eyed, as a damned soul in purgatory might look at Satan passing in regal splendour through the seventy times sevenfold circles of hell.
Reginald Clarke walked on unconcernedly through the rows of gay diners, still smiling, affable, calm. But his companion bethought himself of certain rumours he had heard concerning Ethel Brandenbourg's mad love for the man from whose features she could not even now turn her eyes. Evidently her passion was unreciprocated. It had not always been so. There was a time in her career, some years ago in Paris, when it was whispered that she had secretly married him and, not much later, obtained a divorce. The matter was never cleared up, as both preserved an uncompromising silence upon the subject of their matrimonial experience. Certain it was that, for a space, the genius of Reginald Clarke had completely dominated her brush, and that, ever since he had thrown her aside, her pictures were but plagiarisms of her former artistic self.
The cause of the rupture between them was a matter only of surmise; but the effect it had on the woman testified clearly to the remarkable power of Reginald Clarke. He had entered her life and, behold! the world was transfixed on her canvases in myriad hues of transcending radiance; he had passed from it, and with him vanished the brilliancy of her colouring, as at sunset the borrowed amber and gold fade from the face of the clouds.
The glamour of Clarke's name may have partly explained the secret of his charm, but, even in circles where literary fame is no passport, he could, if he chose, exercise an almost terrible fascination. Subtle and profound, he had ransacked the coffers of mediæval dialecticians and plundered the arsenals of the Sophists. Many years later, when the vultures of misfortune had swooped down upon him, and his name was no longer mentioned without a sneer, he was still remembered in New York drawing-rooms as the man who had brought to perfection the art of talking. Even to dine with him was a liberal education.
Clarke's marvellous conversational power was equalled only by his marvellous style. Ernest Fielding's heart leaped in him at the thought that henceforth he would be privileged to live under one roof with the only writer of his generation who could lend to the English language the rich strength and rugged music of the Elizabethans.
Reginald Clarke was a master of many instruments. Milton's mighty organ was no less obedient to his touch than the little lute of the troubadour. He was never the same; that was his strength. Clarke's style possessed at once the chiselled chasteness of a Greek marble column and the elaborate deviltry of the late Renaissance. At times his winged words seemed to flutter down the page frantically like Baroque angels; at other times nothing could have more adequately described his manner than the timeless calm of the gaunt pyramids.
The two men had reached the street. Reginald wrapped his long spring coat round him.
"I shall expect you to-morrow at four," he said.
The tone of his voice was deep and melodious, suggesting hidden depths and cadences.
"I shall be punctual."
The younger man's voice trembled as he spoke.
"I look forward to your coming with much pleasure. I am interested in you."
The glad blood mounted to Ernest's cheeks at praise from the austere lips of this arbiter of literary elegance.
An almost imperceptible smile crept over the other man's features.
"I think it is quite amazing, but at present," here Clarke drew out a watch set with jewels, "I am afraid I must bid you good-bye."
He held Ernest's hand for a moment in a firm genial grasp, then turned away briskly, while the boy remained standing open-mouthed. The crowd jostling against him carried him almost off his feet, but his eyes followed far into the night the masterful figure of Reginald Clarke, toward whom he felt himself drawn with every fiber of his body and the warm enthusiasm of his generous youth.
With elastic step, inhaling the night-air with voluptuous delight, Reginald Clarke made his way down Broadway, lying stretched out before him, bathed in light and pulsating with life.
His world-embracing intellect was powerfully attracted by the Giant City's motley activities. On the street, as in the salon, his magnetic power compelled recognition, and he stepped through the midst of the crowd as a Circassian blade cleaves water.
After walking a block or two, he suddenly halted before a jeweller's shop. Arrayed in the window were priceless gems that shone in the glare of electricity, like mystical serpent-eyes—green, pomegranate and water-blue. And as he stood there the dazzling radiance before him was transformed in the prism of his mind into something great and very wonderful that might, some day, be a poem.
Then his attention was diverted by a small group of tiny girls dancing on the sidewalk to the husky strains of an old hurdy-gurdy. He joined the circle of amused spectators, to watch those pink-ribboned bits of femininity swaying airily to and fro in unison with the tune. One especially attracted his notice—a slim olive-coloured girl from a land where it is always spring. Her whole being translated into music, with hair dishevelled and feet hardly touching the ground, the girl suggested an orange-leaf dancing on a sunbeam. The rasping street-organ, perchance, brought to her melodious reminiscences of some flute-playing Savoyard boy, brown-limbed and dark of hair.
For several minutes Reginald Clarke followed with keen delight each delicate curve her graceful limbs described. Then—was it that she grew tired, or that the stranger's persistent scrutiny embarrassed her?—the music oozed out of her movements. They grew slower, angular, almost clumsy. The look of interest in Clarke's eyes died, but his whole form quivered, as if the rhythm of the music and the dance had mysteriously entered into his blood.
He continued his stroll, seemingly without aim; in reality he followed, with nervous intensity, the multiform undulations of the populace, swarming through Broadway in either direction. Like the giant whose strength was rekindled every time he touched his mother, the earth, Reginald Clarke seemed to draw fresh vitality from every contact with life.
He turned east along Fourteenth street, where cheap vaudevilles are strung together as glass-pearls on the throat of a wanton. Gaudy bill-boards, drenched in clamorous red, proclaimed the tawdry attractions within. Much to the surprise of the doorkeeper at a particularly evil-looking music hall, Reginald Clarke lingered in the lobby, and finally even bought a ticket that entitled him to enter this sordid wilderness of décolleté art. Street-snipes, a few workingmen, dilapidated sportsmen, and women whose ruined youth thick layers of powder and paint, even in this artificial light, could not restore, constituted the bulk of the audience. Reginald Clarke, apparently unconscious of the curiosity, surprise and envy that his appearance excited, seated himself at a table near the stage, ordering from the solicitous waiter only a cocktail and a programme. The drink he left untouched, while his eyes greedily ran down the lines of the announcement. When he had found what he sought, he lit a cigar, paying no attention to the boards, but studying the audience with cursory interest until the appearance of Betsy, the Hyacinth Girl.
When she began to sing, his mind still wandered. The words of her song were crude, but not without a certain lilt that delighted the uncultured ear, while the girl's voice was thin to the point of being unpleasant. When, however, she came to the burden of the song, Clarke's manner changed suddenly. Laying down his cigar, he listened with rapt attention, eagerly gazing at her. For, as she sang the last line and tore the hyacinth-blossoms from her hair, there crept into her voice a strangely poignant, pathetic little thrill, that redeemed the execrable faultiness of her singing, and brought the rude audience under her spell.
Clarke, too, was captivated by that tremour, the infinite sadness of which suggested the plaint of souls moaning low at night, when lust preys on creatures marked for its spoil.
The singer paused. Still those luminous eyes were upon her. She grew nervous. It was only with tremendous difficulty that she reached the refrain. As she sang the opening lines of the last stanza, an inscrutable smile curled on Clarke's lips. She noticed the man's relentless gaze and faltered. When the burden came, her singing was hard and cracked: the tremour had gone from her voice.
Long before the appointed time Ernest walked up and down in front of the abode of Reginald Clarke, a stately apartment-house overlooking Riverside Drive.
Misshapen automobiles were chasing by, carrying to the cool river's marge the restlessness and the fever of American life. But the bustle and the noise seemed to the boy only auspicious omens of the future.
Jack, his room-mate and dearest friend, had left him a month ago, and, for a space, he had felt very lonely. His young and delicate soul found it difficult to grapple with the vague fears that his nervous brain engendered, when whispered sounds seemed to float from hidden corners, and the stairs creaked under mysterious feet.
He needed the voice of loving kindness to call him back from the valley of haunting shadows, where his poet's soul was wont to linger overlong; in his hours of weakness the light caress of a comrade renewed his strength and rekindled in his hand the flaming sword of song.
And at nightfall he would bring the day's harvest to Clarke, as a worshipper scattering precious stones, incense and tapestries at the feet of a god.
Surely he would be very happy. And as the heart, at times, leads the feet to the goal of its desire, while multicoloured dreams, like dancing-girls, lull the will to sleep, he suddenly found himself stepping from the elevator-car to Reginald Clarke's apartment.
Already was he raising his hand to strike the electric bell when a sound from within made him pause half-way.
"No, there's no help!" he heard Clarke say. His voice had a hard, metallic clangour.
A boyish voice answered plaintively. What the words were Ernest could not distinctly hear, but the suppressed sob in them almost brought the tears to his eyes. He instinctively knew that this was the finale of some tragedy.
Reginald Clarke probably had good reason for parting with his young friend, whom Ernest surmised to be Abel Felton, a talented boy, whom the master had taken under his wings.
In the apartment a momentary silence had ensued.
This was interrupted by Clarke: "It will come again, in a month, in a year, in two years."
"No, no! It is all gone!" sobbed the boy.
"Nonsense. You are merely nervous. But that is just why we must part. There is no room in one house for two nervous people."
"I was not such a nervous wreck before I met you."
"Am I to blame for it—for your morbid fancies, your extravagance, the slow tread of a nervous disease, perhaps?"
"Who can tell? But I am all confused. I don't know what I am saying. Everything is so puzzling—life, friendship, you. I fancied you cared for my career, and now you end our friendship without a thought!"
"We must all follow the law of our being."
"The laws are within us and in our control."
"They are within us and beyond us. It is the physiological structure of our brains, our nerve-cells, that makes and mars our lives.
"Our mental companionship was so beautiful. It was meant to last."
"That is the dream of youth. Nothing lasts. Everything flows—panta rei. We are all but sojourners in an inn. Friendship, as love, is an illusion. Life has nothing to take from a man who has no illusions."
"It has nothing to give him."
They said good-bye.
At the door Ernest met Abel.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"For a little pleasure trip."
Ernest knew that the boy lied.
He remembered that Abel Felton was at work upon some book, a play or a novel. It occurred to him to inquire how far he had progressed with it.
"Not writing it?"
"I am afraid I don't understand."
"Never mind. Some day you will."