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- Cytherea - 1/46 -


CYTHEREA.

JOSEPH HERGESHEIMER

_For _ DOROTHY _Charming in the present and Secure with the past _

I

It was, probably, Lee Randon realized, the last time he would play golf that year. He concluded this standing on a shorn hill about which the country was spread in sere diminishing tones to the grey horizon. Below, a stream held a cold glimmer in a meadow of brown, frost-killed grass; and the wind, the bitter flaws where Lee stood, was thinly scattered with soft crystals of snow. He was alone, no one would play with him so late in the season, and there had been no boy present to carry his clubs. Yes, this was the last time he'd try it until spring: Peyton Morris, who had married Lee's niece and was at least fourteen years his junior, had been justified in a refusal which, at its expression, had made Lee cross.

At worse than forty-five, he had told Morris curtly, he was more active than the young men hardly out of the universities. To this Peyton had replied that undoubtedly Lee had more energy than he; personally he felt as old as--as Egypt. Ridiculous, Lee decided, trying to make up his mind whether he might continue playing or return, beaten by November, to the clubhouse. In the end, with numb fingers, he picked up his ball, and walked slowly back over the empty course. The wind, now, was behind him, and increasingly comfortable he grew reflective:

The comparison of Peyton Morris's age with his, recalling the fact, to be precise, of his forty-seven years, created a vague questioning dissatisfaction. Suddenly he saw himself--a comfortable body in a comfortable existence, a happy existence, he added sharply-- objectively; and the stout figure in knickerbockers, rough stockings, a yellow buckskin jacket and checked cap pulled over a face which, he felt, was brightly red, surprised and a little annoyed him. In the abrupt appearance of this image it seemed that there had been no transitional years between his slender youth and the present. He had an absurd momentary impression that an act of malicious magic had in a second transformed him into a shape decidedly too heavy for grace. His breathing, where the ground turned upward, was even slightly labored.

It was, Lee thought with all the intensity of an original discovery, devilish unpleasant to grow old; to die progressively on one's feet, he elaborated the fact. That was what happened to a man--his liver thickened, his teeth went, his veins became brittle pipes of lime. Worse than all that, his potency, the spirit and heat of living, met without any renewal its inescapable winter. This might, did, occur while his being was rebellious with vain hope. Today, in spite of the slight clogging of his breath, his body's loss of flexibility, his imagination was as vigorous, as curious, as ever ... take that nonsense about the doll, which, in a recalled classical allusion, he had privately named Cytherea. Peyton Morris would never have entered into that!

Lee Randon, on one of his infrequent trips to New York, had seen it in a confectioner's window on Fifth Avenue, and instantly it had captivated his attention, brought him to a halt. The doll, beautifully dressed in the belled skirt of the eighteen-forties, wore plum-colored silk with a bodice and wide short sleeves of pale yellow and, crossed on the breast, a strip of black Spanish lace that fell to the hem of the skirt. It wasn't, of course, the clothes that attracted him--he only grew conscious of them perhaps a month later--but the wilful charm, the enigmatic fascination, of the still face. The eyes were long and half closed under finely arched brows, there was a minute patch at the right corner of a pale scarlet, smiling mouth; a pointed chin marked an elusive oval beneath black hair drawn down upon a long slim neck, hair to which was pinned an odd headdress of old gilt with, at the back, pendent ornamental strands of gold-glass beads.

Insistently conventional, selectly ordinary, in appearance, the stick with a pig-skin handle hanging from his left arm, he had studied the doll with a deepening interest. Never in life, he told himself, had he seen a woman with such a magnetic and disturbing charm. Fixed in intent regard he became conscious that, strangely, rather than small the figure seemed diminished by a distance which yet left every feature clear. With this he grew satirical at himself; and, moving resolutely down the Avenue, treated his absorption with ridicule. But the vision of the face, the smile, the narrowed eyes, persisted in his mind; the truth was that they troubled him; and within three blocks he had turned. The second view intensified rather than lessened his feeling, and he walked quickly into the shop odorous with burned sugar. The doll was removed from the window--it had come from Paris, he learned--and, after a single covert glance, he bought it, for, he needlessly informed the girl wrapping it in an unwieldy light package, his daughter.

To his secret satisfaction, Helena, who was twelve, hadn't been strongly prepossessed; and the doll--though Lee Randon no longer thought of it as merely that--left downstairs, had been finally placed on the white over-mantel of the fireplace by the dining-room door.

There, when he was alone, he very often stopped to gaze at the figure; and, during such a moment of speculative abstraction, he had, from the memories of early reading, called her Cytherea. That, Lee remembered vaguely, was the Cytheranian name of the mysterious goddess of love, Venus, of the principle, the passion, of life stirring in plants and men. But in the shape above him it had been strangely modified from an apparently original purpose, made infinitely difficult if not impossible of understanding. His Cytherea bore the traces, the results, of old and lost and polished civilizations; there was about her even a breath of immemorial China. It mingled with a suggestion of Venice, the eighteenth century Venice of the princes of Naxos--how curiously she brought back tags of discarded reading!--and of the rococo Viennese court. This much he grasped; but the secret of her fascination, of what, at heart, she represented, what in her had happened to love, entirely escaped him.

Lee was interested in this, he reassured his normal intelligence, because really it bore upon him, upon the whole of his married life with Fanny. He wasn't, merely, the victim of a vagrant obsession, the tyranny of a threatening fixed idea. No, the question advanced without answer by Cytherea was not confined to her, it had very decidedly entered into him, and touched, practically, everyone he knew, everyone, that was, who had a trace of imagination. Existence had been enormously upset, in a manner at once incalculable and clear, by the late war. Why, for example, the present spirit of restlessness should particularly affect the relation of men and women he couldn't begin to grasp. Not, he added immediately, again, that it had clouded or shaken his happiness.

It had only given him the desire, the safe necessity, to comprehend the powerful emotion that held Fanny and him secure against any accident to their love. To their love! The repetition, against his contrary intention, took on the accent of a challenge. However, he proceeded mentally, it wasn't the unassailable fact that was challenged, but the indefinable word love. Admiration, affection, passion, were clear in their meanings--but love! His brow contracted in a frown spreading in a shadowy doubt over his face when he saw that he had almost reached the clubhouse; its long steep-pitched bulk lay directly across the path of dusk, approaching from the east; and a ruddy flicker in the glass doors on the veranda showed that a fire had been lighted. To his left, down over the dead sod and beyond a road, he could see the broad low fašade of his house with its terraced lawn and aged stripped maples. There, too, a window was bright on the first floor: probably Fanny was hearing the children's lessons.

* * * * *

That cheerful interior he completely visualized: Fanny, in the nicest possible attire, sitting in the curly-maple rocking-chair, her slippered feet--she had a premonition of rheumatism--elevated on the collapsible stool she carried about with her; and Helena and Gregory hanging on her knees. Gregory, of course, had tomorrow's task easily in hand, with another star for a day's good conduct in school; but Helena, shining in the gold and flush of her radiant inattention, would know nothing. Helena, Lee Randon acknowledged, spelled atrociously. If it weren't for the clubs and his spiked shoes he'd turn and go home directly, himself supervise the children's efforts at education. But Fanny did it much better than he; Helena and Gregory were closer to her; while they volunteered endless personal and trivial admissions to her, he had to ask them, detail by detail, what they were doing.

After he had changed his shoes and secured the latticed steel door of his locker he went up to the main room of the clubhouse, where, on the long divan before the open fire, he found Peyton Morris lounging with Anette Sherwin by a low tea table. The hot water, they informed Lee comfortably, was cold, inviting him by implication to ring for more; and then they returned to the conversation he had interrupted. Anette said:

"I asked her from Friday till Monday, over the dance, you see; but she wired she couldn't be sure. They are going to begin rehearsing at any minute, and then shoot--it is shoot, isn't it?--the picture. What did she tell you at the Plaza?"

"The same thing," Peyton replied moodily. "I only saw her for a scrappy dinner; she couldn't even wait for coffee, but rushed up to a conference with her director."

They were, Lee knew, talking about Mina Raff, a friend of Anette's earlier summers by the sea who was beginning to be highly successful in the more serious moving pictures. He had met her a number of years ago, in Eastlake, but he retained no clear impression of her; and, admitting that he hadn't gone to see her in a picture, wondered aloud at her sudden fame. Peyton Morris glanced at him, frowning; he seemed at the point of vigorous speech, then said nothing.

"Mina is lovely now, Lee," Anette spoke in his place; "you will realize that at once. She's like a--a wistful April moon, or corn silk."

"I like black hair," Randon asserted.

"That's amusing, when you think Fanny's is quite brown," Anette replied. "Whom have you been meeting with black hair? There's none I can remember in Eastlake."

"There isn't anybody in particular," Lee reassured her; "it is just an


Cytherea - 1/46

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