Murder in Any Degree Part 5

"For months I did nothing. I was miserable. She saw it at last, and said to me:

"'You ought to work. You aren't happy doing nothing. I've arranged something for you.'

"I raised my head in amazement, as she continued, clapping her hands with delight:

"'I've talked it all over with papa. You'll go into his office. You'll do big things. He's quite enthusiastic, and I promised for you.'

"I went. I became interested. I stayed. Now I am like any other man, domesticated, conservative, living my life, and she has not the slightest idea of what she has killed."

"Let us go in," said Herkimer, rising.

"And you say I could have left a name?" said Rantoul, bitterly.

"You were wrong to tell me all this," said Herkimer.

"I owed you the explanation. What could I do?"

"Lie."

"Why?"

"Because, after such a confidence, it is impossible for you ever to see me again. You know it."

"Nonsense. I--"

"Let's go back."

Full of dull anger and revolt, Herkimer led the way. Rantoul, after a few steps, caught him by the sleeve.

"Don't take it too seriously, Britt. I don't revolt any more. I'm no longer the Rantoul you knew."

"That's just the trouble," said Herkimer, cruelly.

When their steps sounded near, Mrs. Rantoul rose hastily, spilling her silk and needles on the floor. She gave her husband a swift, searching look, and said with her flattering smile:

"Mr. Herkimer, you must be a very interesting talker. I am quite jealous."

"I am rather tired," he answered, bowing. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go off to bed."

"Really?" she said, raising her eyes. She extended her hand, and he took it with almost the physical repulsion with which one would touch the hand of a criminal. The next morning he left.

III

When Herkimer had finished, he shrugged his shoulders, gave a short laugh, and, glancing at the clock, went off in his curt, purposeful manner.

"Well, by Jove!" said Steingall, recovering first from the spell of the story, "doesn't that prove exactly what I said? They're jealous, they're all jealous, I tell you, jealous of everything you do. All they want us to do is to adore them. By Jove! Herkimer's right. Rantoul was the biggest of us all. She murdered him just as much as though she had put a knife in him."

"She did it on purpose," said De Gollyer. "There was nothing childlike about her, either. On the contrary, I consider her a clever, a devilishly clever woman."

"Of course she did. They're all clever, d.a.m.n them!" said Steingall, explosively. "Now, what do you say, Quinny? I say that an artist who marries might just as well tie a rope around his neck and present it to his wife and have it over."

"On the contrary," said Quinny, with a sudden inspiration reorganizing his whole battle front, "every artist should marry. The only danger is that he may marry happily."

"What?" cried Steingall. "But you said--"

"My dear boy, I have germinated some new ideas," said Quinny, unconcerned. "The story has a moral,--I detest morals,--but this has one. An artist should always marry unhappily, and do you know why?

Purely a question of chemistry. Towsey, when do you work the best?"

"How do you mean?" said Towsey, rousing himself.

"I've heard you say that you worked best when your nerves were all on edge--night out, cuc.u.mbers, thunder-storm, or a touch of fever."

"Yes, that's so."

"Can any one work well when everything is calm?" continued Quinny, triumphantly, to the amazement of Rankin and Steingall. "Can you work on a clear spring day, when nothing bothers you and the first of the month is two weeks off, eh? Of course you can't. Happiness is the enemy of the artist. It puts to sleep the faculties. Contentment is a drug. My dear men, an artist should always be unhappy. Perpetual state of fermentation sets the nerves throbbing, sensitive to impressions.

Exaltation and remorse, anger and inspiration, all hodge-podge, chemical action and reaction, all this we are blessed with when we are unhappily married. Domestic infelicity drives us to our art; happiness makes us neglect it. Shall I tell you what I do when everything is smooth, no nerves, no inspiration, fat, puffy Sunday-dinner-feeling, too happy, can't work? I go home and start a quarrel with my wife."

"And then you _can_ work," cried Steingall, roaring with laughter. "By Jove, you _are_ immense!"

"Never better," said Quinny, who appeared like a prophet.

The four artists, who had listened to Herkimer's story in that gradual thickening depression which the subject of matrimony always let down over them, suddenly brightened visibly. On their faces appeared the look of inward speculation, and then a ray of light.

Little Towsey, who from his arrival had sulked, fretted, and fumed, jumped up energetically and flung away his third cigar.

"Here, where are you going?" said Rankin in protest.

"Over to the studio," said Towsey, quite unconsciously. "I feel like a little work."

ONE HUNDRED IN THE DARK

They were discussing languidly, as such groups do, seeking from each topic a peg on which to hang a few epigrams that might be retold in the lip currency of the club--Steingall, the painter, florid of gesture and effete, foreign in type, with black-rimmed gla.s.ses and trailing ribbon of black silk that cut across his cropped beard and cavalry mustaches; De Gollyer, a critic, who preferred to be known as a man about town, short, feverish, incisive, who slew plat.i.tudes with one adjective and tagged a reputation with three; Rankin, the architect, always in a defensive explanatory att.i.tude, who held his elbows on the table, his hands before his long sliding nose, and gestured with his fingers; Quinny, the ill.u.s.trator, long and gaunt, with a predatory eloquence that charged irresistibly down on any subject, cut it off, surrounded it, and raked it with enfilading wit and satire; and Peters, whose methods of existence were a mystery, a young man of fifty, who had done nothing and who knew every one by his first name, the club postman, who carried the t.i.ttle-tattle, the _bon mots_ and the news of the day, who drew up a pet.i.tion a week and pursued the house committee with a daily grievance.

About the latticed porch, which ran around the sanded yard with its feeble fountain and futile evergreens, other groups were eying one another, or engaging in desultory conversation, oppressed with the heaviness of the night.

At the round table, Quinny alone, absorbing energy as he devoured the conversation, having routed Steingall on the Germans and archaeology and Rankin on the origins of the Lord's Prayer, had seized a chance remark of De Gollyer's to say:

"There are only half a dozen stories in the world. Like everything that's true it isn't true." He waved his long, gouty fingers in the direction of Steingall, who, having been silenced, was regarding him with a look of sleepy indifference. "What is more to the point, is the small number of human relations that are so simple and yet so fundamental that they can be eternally played upon, redressed, and reinterpreted in every language, in every age, and yet remain inexhaustible in the possibility of variations."

"By George, that is so," said Steingall, waking up. "Every art does go back to three or four notes. In composition it is the same thing.

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